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Germany’s Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit yesterday from Axel Springer against Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus. The European publishing giant (which acquired Business Insider in 2015) argued that ad blocking, as well as the business model where advertisers pay to be added to circumvent the white list, violated Germany’s competition law. Axel Springer won a partial victory in 2016, when a lower court ruled that it shouldn’t have to pay for white listing. However, the Supreme Court has now overturned that decision. In the process, it declared that ad-blocking and Eyeo’s white list are both legal. (German speakers can read the court’s press release.) After the ruling, Eyeo sent me the following statement from Ben Williams, its head of operations and communications: Today, we are extremely pleased with the ruling from Germany’s Supreme Court in favor of Adblock Plus/eyeo and against the German media publishing company Axel Springer. This ruling confirms — just as the regional courts in Munich and Hamburg stated previously — that people have the right in Germany to block ads. This case had already been tried in the Cologne Regional Court, then in the Regional Court of Appeals, also in Cologne — with similar results. It also confirms that Adblock Plus can use a whitelist to allow certain acceptable ads through. Today’s Supreme Court decision puts an end to Axel Springer’s claim that they be treated differently for the whitelisting portion of Adblock Plus’ business model. Axel Springer, meanwhile, described ad blocking as “an attack on the heart of the free media” and said it would appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court. pic.twitter.com/8hgsrT3Uem — Adblock Plus (@AdblockPlus) April 19, 2018

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It’s been more than a year since YouTube promised to improve controls over what content advertisers would find their ads in front of; eight months since it promised to demonetize “hateful” videos; two months since it said it would downgrade offensive channels; and yet CNN reports that ads from hundreds of major brands are still appearing as pre-rolls for actual Nazis. The ongoing failure to police billions of hours of content isn’t exactly baffling — this is a difficult problem to solve — but it is disappointing that YouTube seems to have repeatedly erred on the side of monetization. As with previous reports, CNN’s article shows that ads were running on channels that, if YouTube’s content rules are to be believed, should have been demonetized and demoted instantly: Nazis, pedophiles, extremists of the right, left, and everywhere in between. Maybe even Logan Paul. YouTube’s CEO promises stronger enforcement in the wake of controversies And the system appears to be working in strange ways: one screenshot shows a video by a self-avowed Nazi, entitled “David Duke on Harvey Weinstein exposing Jewish domination. Black/White genetic differences.” Below it a YouTube warning states that “certain features have been disabled for this video,” including comments and sharing, because of “content that may be inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.” A cheerful ad from Nissan is running ahead of this enlightening piece of media, and CNN notes that ads also ran on it coming from the Friends of Zion Museum and the Jewish National Fund! Ads from the Toy Association ran on the channel of a guy who argued for the decriminalization of pedophilia! I can’t really add anything to this. It’s so absurd I can barely believe it myself. Remember, this is after the company supposedly spent a year (at the very least) working to prevent this exact thing from happening. I left the headline in the present tense because I’m so certain that it’s still going on. The responsibility really is YouTube’s, and if it can’t live up to its own promises, companies are going to leave it behind rather than face viral videos of their logo smoothly fading into a swastika on the wall of some sad basement-dwelling bigot. “Subway — eat fresh! And now, some guy’s thoughts on genocide.” Some of the other brands that had ads run against offensive content: Amazon, Adidas, Cisco, Hilton, Hershey, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Netflix, Nordstrom, The Washington Post, The New York Times, 20th Century Fox Film, Under Armour, The Centers for Disease Control, Department of Transportation, Customs and Border Protection, Veterans Affairs the US Coast Guard Academy. I’ve asked YouTube for comment on how this happened — or rather, how it never stopped happening.

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Startups are a gamble, but it’s possible to better understand why some thrive and many more die by looking at the ecosystems in which they operate. Such is the mission of eight-year-old Startup Genome, comprised of a group of researchers and entrepreneurs who, every year, interview thousands of founders and investors around the world to get a better handle on what’s changing in the regions where they operate, and what remains stubbornly the same. The larger objective is to figure out how to help more startups succeed, and the outfit — which this year surveyed 10,000 founders with the help of partners like Crunchbase and Dealroom — produced some data that should perhaps concern those in the U.S. To wit, China looks positioned to overtake U.S. dominance when it comes to numerous tech sectors. Consider: In 2014, just 14 percent of so-called unicorns were based in China. Between the start of last year through today, that percentage has shot up to 35 percent, while in the U.S., the number of homegrown unicorns has fallen from 61 percent to 41 percent of the overall global number. You could argue that investors are simply assigning China-based startups overly lofty valuations, as happened here in the U.S., and we partly believe that to be true. But China is also clearly “in it to win it,” based on a look at patents, with four times as many AI-related applications and three times as many crypto- and blockchain-related patents registered in China last year. With so much of the tech industry now focused on deep tech, it’s worth noting. In fact, as much as we loathed the January Financial Times column penned by famed VC Michael Moritz, who suggested that U.S. companies follow China’s lead, his underlying call to arms was probably, gulp, prescient in its own way. What else should startups know? According to Startup Genome’s findings, in addition to the rise of AI, blockchain and robotics manufacturing, there are clearly declining sub sectors, too, including, least surprisingly, ad tech, which has seen a roughly 35 percent drop in funding over the last five years. No doubt that ties directly to the growing dominance of Facebook and Google, which accounted for 73 percent of all U.S. digital advertising last year, according to the equity research firm Pivotal. That doesn’t mean ad tech startups are cooked, notes the study’s authors. Rather, declining sub-sectors are often “mature” but can be revived by new technologies. In this case, while funding for adtech has dropped, virtual reality and augmented reality could well inject some new growth into the industry at some point. Maybe. Either way, to us, the most interesting facets of this report — and it really is worth poring over — are the connections it’s able to make by talking with so many people around the world. It addresses, for example, how Stockholm, a relatively small startup ecosystem, is able to produce sizable startups at a meaningful rate, versus Chicago, whose ecosystem is ostensibly three times bigger. (The answer: Stockholm’s startup founders are apparently better connected to the world’s top seven ecosystems.) Also quite interesting is the report’s findings about women founders, who build more relationships with regional founders and are more locally connected than their male counterparts — except with investors. That’s bad news for both women founders and investors, as local connectedness is associated with better startup performance. To read the report in full, click over here. You have to fork over your email address, but with 240 pages filled with fascinating nuggets and other useful information, you’ll likely find it well worth it.

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The U.S. government isn’t the only one feeling skittish about Kaspersky Lab. On Friday, the Russian security firm’s founder Eugene Kaspersky confronted Twitter’s apparent ban on advertising from the company, a decision it quietly issued in January. No matter how this situation develops, we won’t be doing any more advertising on Twitter this year. The whole of the planned Twitter advertising budget for 2018 will instead be donated to the @EFF. They do a lot to fight censorship online. — Eugene Kaspersky (@e_kaspersky) April 20, 2018 My open letter to @jack Dorsey asking for more transparency to quash any doubts about potential political censorship on Twitter https://t.co/XKtIOpbmd3 pic.twitter.com/UhecZRY7ZB — Eugene Kaspersky (@e_kaspersky) April 20, 2018 “In a short letter from an unnamed Twitter employee, we were told that our company ‘operates using a business model that inherently conflicts with acceptable Twitter Ads business practices,'” Kaspersky wrote. “One thing I can say for sure is this: we haven’t violated any written – or unwritten – rules, and our business model is quite simply the same template business model that’s used throughout the whole cybersecurity industry: We provide users with products and services, and they pay us for them.” He noted that the company has spent around than €75,000 ($93,000 USD) to promote its content on Twitter in 2017. Kaspersky called for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to specify the motivation behind the ban after failing to respond to an official February 6 letter from his company. “More than two months have passed since then, and the only reply we received from Twitter was the copy of the same boilerplate text. Accordingly, I’m forced to rely on another (less subtle but nevertheless oft and loudly declared) principle of Twitter’s – speaking truth to power – to share details of the matter with interested users and to publicly ask that you, dear Twitter executives, kindly be specific as to the reasoning behind this ban; fully explain the decision to switch off our advertising capability, and to reveal what other cybersecurity companies need to do in order to avoid similar situations.” In a statement about the incident, Twitter reiterated that Kaspersky Lab’s business model “inherently conflicts with acceptable Twitter Ads business practices.” In a statement to CyberScoop, Twitter pointed to the late 2017 Department of Homeland Security directive to eliminate Kaspersky software from Executive Branch systems due to the company’s relationship with Russian intelligence. “The Department is concerned about the ties between certain Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies, and requirements under Russian law that allow Russian intelligence agencies to request or compel assistance from Kaspersky and to intercept communications transiting Russian networks,” DHS asserted in the directive at the time.

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For those of you keeping track of the scooter saga in San Francisco, Supervisor Aaron Peskin has filed a resolution in opposition of California State Assembly bill 2989. The bill, authored by Assembly Member Heath Flora and sponsored by electric scooter startup Bird, seeks to increase the speed limit of electric scooters from 15 to 20 mph, increase the wattage to 250 to 750, let people ride them on sidewalks and only require minors to wear helmets. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and the Municipal Transportation Agency are actively creating a permitting process to better regulate scooters. The intent is to ensure “sensible, regulatory frameworks,” Peskin said earlier this week. In legislative meetings earlier this week, members of the public and supervisors expressed concerns pertaining to people operating scooters on sidewalks, as well as people riding them without helmets. This bill, introduced back in February, would essentially enable the opposite of what San Francisco envisions. “While San Francisco policymakers pursue common sense regulation of standup electronic scooters to enhance the public benefit of this new shared mobility technology and to reduce potential harm to the public, state legislators seek to eliminate elements of the Vehicle Code that exist to protect the health and safety of members of the public including users of standup electric scooters,” Peskin wrote in his resolution. I’ve reached out to Bird and will update this story when I hear back.

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It’s been a hell of a week for ZTE. News Monday that it was being hit with a seven-year export ban sent the company scrambling. The Chinese handset maker suspended its earnings report and reportedly sent its lawyers to meet with Google to see if anything could be worked out about a punishment that could hamper its ability to utilize Android and various key services. Four days after we first reached out, ZTE has finally offered us an official reaction to the news. And it’s a doozy. The six-paragraph official statement from corporate mulls over the punishment and reasserts ZTE’s compliance to international law, which it “regard[s] as the foundation and bottom-line of the company’s operation.” ZTE adds that it invested “over $50 million in its export control compliance program and is planning to invest more resources in 2018.” So, why did the company get dinged by the U.S. Department of Commerce for failure to significantly reprimand staff after pleading guilty to violating sanctions on Iran and North Korea? The company contends that the U.S. Bureau of Industry and Security “ignored” its “diligent work” and progress it has made in complying with the law, calling the punishment, “unfair.” Seven years is certainly severe, given that U.S.-based companies make north of a quarter of the components used in the company’s handsets, according to estimates. That, coupled with U.S.-based software makers, Google included, put the company in an extremely tight spot moving forward, and will likely require a complete rethink of ZTE’s business model, if upheld. “The Denial Order will not only severely impact the survival and development of ZTE,” the company says, “but will also cause damages to all partners of ZTE including a large number of U.S. companies.” ZTE adds that it will continue to fight the ruling, taking “judicial measures,” if necessary. The punishment comes as ZTE finds itself targeted by the U.S. government over spying charges, alongside fellow Chinese handset maker, Huawei.  

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Rough week to be in Twitter support. Three days after the site experienced downtime across the globe, the site was hit by another outage. Status.io’s service site is currently listing an “active incident,” leaving many users unable to tweet. In other cases, the site isn’t loading at all, instead serving up internal server errors or messages stating that the service is “over capacity.” Here in the States, at least, the issue doesn’t appear to be quite as widespread as Tuesday’s incident. We’ve reached out to Twitter for comment and will update as soon as we hear more. Update: Twitter says it’s resolved the momentary outage, telling TechCrunch in a statement, “Earlier today, people were unable to send Tweets for about 30 minutes. We’ve resolved the internal issue and we’re sorry for the disruption.”

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Containers are eating the software world — and Kubernetes is the king of containers. So if you are working on any major software project, especially in the enterprise, you will run into it sooner or later. Cloud Foundry, which hosted its semi-annual developer conference in Boston this week, is an interesting example for this. Outside of the world of enterprise developers, Cloud Foundry remains a bit of an unknown entity, despite having users in at least half of the Fortune 500 companies (though in the startup world, it has almost no traction). If you are unfamiliar with Cloud Foundry, you can think of it as somewhat similar to Heroku, but as an open-source project with a large commercial ecosystem and the ability to run it at scale on any cloud or on-premises installation. Developers write their code (following the twelve-factor methodology), define what it needs to run and Cloud Foundry handles all of the underlying infrastructure and — if necessary — scaling. Ideally, that frees up the developer from having to think about where their applications will run and lets them work more efficiently. To enable all of this, the Cloud Foundry Foundation made a very early bet on containers, even before Docker was a thing. Since Kubernetes wasn’t around at the time, the various companies involved in Cloud Foundry came together to build their own container orchestration system, which still underpins much of the service today. As it took off, though, the pressure to bring support for Kubernetes grew inside of the Cloud Foundry ecosystem. Last year, the Foundation announced its first major move in this direction by launching its Kubernetes-based Container Runtime for managing containers, which sits next to the existing Application Runtime. With this, developers can use Cloud Foundry to run and manage their new (and existing) monolithic apps and run them in parallel with the new services they develop. But remember how Cloud Foundry also still uses its own container service for the Application Runtime? There is really no reason to do that now that Kubernetes (and the various other projects in its ecosystem) have become the default of handling containers. It’s maybe no surprise then that there is now a Cloud Foundry project that aims to rip out the old container management systems and replace them with Kubernetes. The container management piece isn’t what differentiates Cloud Foundry, after all. Instead, it’s the developer experience — and at the end of the day, the whole point of Cloud Foundry is that developers shouldn’t have to care about the internal plumbing of the infrastructure. There is another aspect to how the Cloud Foundry ecosystem is embracing Kubernetes, too. Since Cloud Foundry is also just software, there’s nothing stopping you from running it on top of Kubernetes, too. And with that, it’s no surprise that some of the largest Cloud Foundry vendors, including SUSE and IBM, are doing exactly that. The SUSE Cloud Application Platform, which is a certified Cloud Foundry distribution, can run on any public cloud Kubernetes infrastructure, including the Microsoft Azure Container service. As the SUSE team told me, that means it’s not just easier to deploy, but also far less resource-intensive to run. Similarly, IBM is now offering Cloud Foundry on top of Kubernetes for its customers, though it’s only calling this an experimental product for now. IBM’s GM of Cloud Developer Services Don Boulia stressed that IBM’s customers were mostly looking for ways to run their workloads in an isolated environment that isn’t shared with other IBM customers. Boulia also stressed that for most customers, it’s not about Kubernetes versus Cloud Foundry. For most of his customers, using Kubernetes by itself is very much about moving their existing applications to the cloud. And for new applications, those customers are then opting to run Cloud Foundry. That’s something the SUSE team also stressed. One pattern SUSE has seen is that potential customers come to it with the idea of setting up a container environment and then, over the course of the conversation, decide to implement Cloud Foundry as well. Indeed, the message of this week’s event was very much that Kubernetes and Cloud Foundry are complementary technologies. That’s something Chen Goldberg, Google’s Director of Engineering for Container Engine and Kubernetes, also stressed during a panel discussion at the event. Both the Cloud Foundry Foundation and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), the home of Kubernetes, are under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation. They take somewhat different approaches to their communities, with Cloud Foundry stressing enterprise users far more than the CNCF. There are probably some politics at play here, but for the most part, the two organizations seem friendly enough — and they do share a number of members. “We are part of CNCF and part of Cloud Foundry foundation,” Pivotal CEO Rob Mee told our own Ron Miller. “Those communities are increasingly sharing tech back and forth and evolving together. Not entirely independent and not competitive either. Lot of complexity and subtlety. CNCF and Cloud Foundry are part of a larger ecosystem with complimentary and converging tech.” We’ll likely see more of this technology sharing — and maybe collaboration — between the CNCF and Cloud Foundry going forward. The CNCF is, after all, the home of a number of very interesting projects for building cloud-native applications that do have their fair share of use cases in Cloud Foundry, too. Cloud Foundry Foundation looks east as Alibaba joins as a gold member

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When Apple launched its new App Store in iOS 11 back in September, it aimed to offer app developers better exposure, as well as a better app discovery experience for consumers. A new study from Sensor Tower out today takes a look at how well that’s been working in the months since. According to its findings, getting a featured spot on the new App Store can increase downloads by as much as 800 percent, with the “App of the Day” or “Game of the Day” spots offering the most impact. The app store intelligence firm examined data from September 2017 to present day to come to its conclusions, it says. During this time, median U.S. iPhone downloads for apps that snagged the “Game of the Day” spot increased by 802 percent for the week following the feature, compared to the week prior to being featured. “App of the Day” apps saw a boost of 685 percent. Being featured in other ways – like in one of the new App Store Stories or in an App List – also drove downloads higher, by 222 percent and 240 percent, respectively. The numbers seem to indicate that Apple is achieving the results it wanted with the release of its redesigned App Store. Over the years, Apple’s app marketplace had grown so large that finding new apps had become challenging. And developers sometimes found ways to bump their apps higher in the top charts for exposure, leaving iPhone owners wondering if a new app was really that popular, or if it was some sort of paid promotion. The iOS 11 App Store, on the other hand, has taken more of an editorial viewpoint to its app recommendations. While the top charts haven’t gone away, the focus these days is on what Apple thinks is best – not the wisdom of the masses. Apple has applied its editorial eye to things like timely round-ups of apps; curated, thematic collections; as well as articles about apps and interviews with developers. Apple also picks an app and game to feature daily, so the App Store always has fresh content and a reason for users to return. The end result is something that’s more akin to a publication about apps, instead of a just an app marketplace. What’s most interesting, then, in Sensor Tower’s report, are what sort of app publishers Apple has chosen to feature. Apple had touted the App Store changes would be a way to give smaller developers more exposure. But if you’ve popped into the App Store from time to time, you may have noticed that big publishers – not indies – were having their apps featured. In fact, an early report about the App Store revamp criticized Apple for giving big publishers too much attention. It said that apps from brands like Starbucks and CBS, or game makers like EA and Glu, weren’t exactly hurting for downloads. But Apple’s favoring of big publishers is only true to a point, says Sensor Tower. It found that 13 of the top 15 featured publishers (by number of features) had at least one million U.S. iPhone downloads since the launch of the new App Store last September. It’s not surprising that Apple wants to highlight these publishers. Many of them, and particularly the game publishers, have multiple popular apps. So when their apps get an update or they have a new release, consumers pay attention. Apple, of course, wants to capitalize on that consumer interest because it shares in the revenue app publishers generate through things like paid downloads, in-app purchases and subscriptions. However, Apple isn’t only giving the limelight to large publishers, says Sensor Tower. It also found that 29 percent of the apps it has feature since the launch of the revamped App Store were from publishers who had fewer than 10,000 downloads during that time. “While it’s clearly the case that big publishers are more likely to receive the largest number of features, small publishers still very much have their chance to benefit from a feature on the App Store,” said Sensor Tower’s Mobile Insights Analyst, Jonathan Briskman. Though Sensor Tower’s published report focused only on the iOS App Store, it’s worth noting how it compares with Google Play. Getting a featured spot on Google’s app store isn’t as impactful, the firm tells TechCrunch. The largest week-over-week increase to the median it saw there was only around 200 percent. Image credits, all: Sensor Tower 

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Despite plenty of skepticism over early trailers and the source material itself, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has been doing very well at the box office. En mi opinion, it made a lot of quality shifts from the book that made it a quality popcorn flick that wasn’t too nerdishly pretentious. A lot of people in the virtual reality industry had sky-high expectations for the movie to drive people to buying VR headsets, and while that probably isn’t happening, the movie has given an opportunity to a lot of these insiders to showcase how far the technology has come. Today, HTC released a video showing how VR was used in the production of Ready Player One by the actors and the man himself, Steven Spielberg. The video offers a healthy chunk of heavy-handed PR for Vive. Nevertheless, what’s cool about the video is what it showcases about how acting has changed because of visual effects and how technology platforms can equal the playing field a bit by getting creatives deeper inside visual worlds to deliver edits with a more precise set of tools. As the actors were clad in mo-cap suits, VR offered them a chance to orient themselves. For Spielberg, himself, VR offered an opportunity to move freely through rough digital environments and frame shots while in full view of the 3D designs. Tech tools like the in-VR editors for game engines that Unity and Epic Games have built have done wonders for game developers wanting to peer inside game worlds, but they also have plenty to offer in more of a view-only sense where non-technical folk can explore details and pipe off commands for what they want a scene or model or environment to look like.

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RealSelf, an online community where people can ask questions, share their experiences and connect with doctors providing cosmetic treatments, has raised $40 million in new funding – its first round of financing since the $2 million raised in 2008, two years after its founding. The round was led by Elephant, a VC firm co-founded by Warby Parker co-founder Andy Hunt. Hunt will also join RealSelf’s board of directors with the close of this round. RealSelf offers one of the largest online communities for those who want to learn more about cosmetic procedures, including plastic surgery and other non-surgical treatments, like Botox injections. It’s the sort of thing people don’t necessarily want to talk about openly on social networks, but RealSelf has found a way to get people to socialize around the topic. Its users – anonymously – post reviews, have discussions, ask questions, and even detail their progress in post-op photos series. Reading through someone’s experiences not only gives people better insight into what a procedure is like, it also provides an emotional support system for those who are recovering. The idea for the company came from Expedia alum Tom Seery, following a discussion he had with his wife about how hard it was to get the true story about which cosmetic treatments are actually worth the cost and show results. RealSelf’s goal is to bring more transparency to a market where customers before had been sold on promises and hype, often by doctors who would gloss over the downsides – like months spent in painful recovery – or the potential bad outcomes from riskier procedures. Since its launch, RealSelf has grown to include over 2 million anonymous patient reviews, ratings and photos regarding hundreds of different aesthetic procedures. And demand for this sort of information continues to grow, along with the overall market. Last year, for example, there were over 17.5 million surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments performed in the U.S., up from 13.1 million procedures in 2010, the company notes. Much of that growth comes from minimally invasive, non-surgical treatments, which outpaced surgeries nearly eight to one. With more people looking for information about these procedures online, RealSelf has seen its visitor counts climb. Last year, nearly 94 million people visited the site from over 100 countries – a metric that’s up more than 270 percent since 2013. 40 percent of those visitors were from outside the U.S. In addition to helping users network and review their own treatments, RealSelf also allows doctors to answer users’ questions, create profiles, share their own before-and-after’s, and offer consultations to those who contact them. The company makes money by offering these doctors a way to target their potential customers, and has been profitable for years as a result. Every month, RealSelf facilitates around 500,000 connections between consumers and doctors, the company says. The funding will allow RealSelf to add fuel to its fire, says its founder. “Our investors bring incredible experience and insight in building household name brands and businesses for the long-term. I am thrilled to have Elephant and our other new investors join our roster and welcome Andy to our board,” said Seery, in an announcement about the round. “We’ve bootstrapped RealSelf into a market leading position that helps millions learn about cosmetic treatments and connect with doctors. Now is our time to step on the gas. We are doubling down to grow awareness, drive innovation and extend our global reach to help anyone considering cosmetic treatments make more confident decisions,” he added. The company, which already has over 200 employees, plans to hire “significantly” this year, and double its office space in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood in June. It has also just brought on its first CMO, Tanja Omeze, previously the head of marketing for the Amazon Video Store, and who had led marketing at Weight Watchers, Verizon Wireless and Scholastic. “Tom and the team at RealSelf have done an amazing job building a trusted marketplace where consumers and medical experts come together to share information and connect,” said RealSelf’s new board member, Hunt. “Historically, we have invested in companies that provide consumers with transparency in complex markets. RealSelf has built the leading platform allowing consumers to find detailed information, share stories and make better, safer decisions about extremely personal aesthetics choices,” he said.      

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Facebook users in Europe are reporting the company has begun testing its controversial facial recognition technology in the region. Jimmy Nsubuga, a journalist at Metro, is among several European Facebook users who have said they’ve been notified by the company they are in its test bucket. The company has previously said an opt-in option for facial recognition will be pushed out to all European users next month. It’s hoping to convince Europeans to voluntarily allow it to expand its use of the privacy-hostile tech — which was turned off in the bloc after regulatory pressure, back in 2012, when Facebook was using it for features such as automatically tagging users in photo uploads. Under impending changes to its T&Cs — ostensibly to comply with the EU’s incoming GDPR data protection standard — the company has crafted a manipulative consent flow that tries to sell people on giving it their data; including filling in its own facial recognition blanks by convincing Europeans to agree to it grabbing and using their biometric data after all.  Notably Facebook is not offering a voluntary opt-in to Europeans who find themselves in its facial recognition test bucket. Rather users are being automatically turned into its lab rats — and have to actively delve into the settings to say no. In a notification to affected users, the company writes [emphasis ours]: “You control face recognition. This setting is on, but you can turn it off at any time, which applies to features we may add later.” Not only is the tech turned on, but users who click through to the settings to try and turn it off will also find Facebook attempting to dissuade them from doing that — with manipulative examples of how the tech can “protect” them. As another Facebook user who found herself enrolled in the test — journalist Jennifer Baker — points out, what it’s doing here is incredibly disingenuous because it’s using fear to try to manipulate people’s choices. Sure #Facebook, I'll take a milisecond to consider whether you want me to enable #facialrecognition for my own protection or your #data #tracking business model. #Disingenuous pricks! pic.twitter.com/s7nngaHVSq — Jennifer Baker (@BrusselsGeek) April 20, 2018 Under the EU’s incoming data protection framework Facebook will not be able to automatically opt users into facial recognition — it will have to convince people to switch the tech on themselves. But the experiment it’s running here (without gaining individuals’ upfront consent) looks very much like a form of A/B testing — to see which of its disingenuous examples is best able to convince people to accept the highly privacy-hostile technology by voluntarily switching it on. But given that Facebook controls the entire consent flow, and can rely on big data insights gleaned from its own platform (of 2BN+ users), this is not even remotely a fair fight. Consent is being manipulated, not freely given. This is big data-powered mass manipulation of human decisions — i.e. until the ‘right’ answer (for Facebook’s business) is ‘selected’ by the user. Data protection experts we spoke to earlier this week do not believe Facebook’s approach to consent will be legal under GDPR. Legal challenges are certain at this point. But legal challenges also take time. And in the meanwhile Facebook users will be being manipulated into agreeing with things that align with the company’s data-harvesting business interests — and handing over their sensitive personal information without understanding the full implications. It’s also not clear how many Facebook users are being auto-enrolled into this facial recognition test — we’ve put questions to it and will update this post with any reply. Last month Facebook said it would be rolling out “a limited test of some of the additional choices we’ll ask people to make as part of GDPR”. It also said it was “starting by asking only a small percentage of people so that we can be sure everything is working properly”, and further claimed: “[T]he changes we’re testing will let people choose whether to enable facial recognition, which has previously been unavailable in the EU.” Facebook’s wording in those statements is very interesting — with no number put on how many people will be made into test subjects (though it is very clearly trying to play the experiment down; “limited test”, “small”) — so we simply don’t know how many Europeans are having their facial data processed by Facebook right now, without their upfront consent. Nor do we know where in Europe all these test subjects are located. But it’s pretty likely the test contravenes even current EU data protection laws. (GDPR applies from May 25.) Facebook’s description of its testing plan last month was also disingenuous as it implied users would get to choose to enable facial recognition. In fact, it’s just switching it on — saddling test subjects with the effort of opting out. The company was likely hoping the test would not attract too much attention — given how much GDPR news is flowing through its PR channels, and how much attention the topic is generally sucking up — and we can see why now because it’s essentially reversed its 2012 decision to switch off facial recognition in Europe (made after the feature attracted so much blow-back), to grab as much data as it can while it can. Millions of Europeans could be having their fundamental rights trampled on here, yet again. We just don’t know what the company actually means by “small”. (The EU has ~500M inhabitants — even 1%, a “small percentage”, of that would involve millions of people… ) Once again Facebook isn’t telling how many people it’s experimenting on.

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AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson revealed on Thursday the carrier’s plans to launch another live TV service called “AT&T Watch,” which would offer a cheap, $15-per-month bundle of channels for customers, and be provided to AT&T Wireless subscribers for free. At this price point, the service would be one of the lowest on the market – less than Sling TV’s entry-level, $20-per-month package, and just a bit less than Philo’s low-cost, sports-free offering, priced at $16 per month. Stephenson, who’s in court defending the proposed $85 billion merger with Time Warner against antitrust claims, announced the service on the witness stand. He held up the soon-to-arrive AT&T Watch as a rebuttal of sorts to the Justice Department’s point about the company’s continually climbing prices for its DirecTV satellite service, according to a report from Variety. The Justice Department is concerned that, if the merger goes through, AT&T will then raise prices on Time Warner’s Turner networks, like TNT, TBS and CNN in a way that would hurt other pay TV providers. Few other details were offered regarding AT&T Watch, beyond its price point – which is due to the fact that it will also be sports-free offering, like Philo. But AT&T’s advantage over competitors is the distribution provided by its AT&T Wireless business. Although its existing streaming service DirecTV Now is one of the newest on the market, it has already reached number two in terms of subscribers, falling behind Sling TV. Beyond its lack of sports, the channel lineup for AT&T Watch was not discussed, nor was an exact launch date. Stephenson said the company hoped to launch it in the next few weeks.

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There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hate building Ikea furniture and madmen. Now, thanks to Ikeabot, the madmen can be replaced. Ikeabot is a project built at Control Robotics Intelligence (CRI) group at NTU in Singapore. The team began by teaching robots to insert pins and manipulate Ikea parts and then, slowly, began to figure out how to pit the robots against the furniture. The results, if you’ve ever fought with someone trying to put together a Billy, are heartening. From Spectrum: The assembly process from CRI is not quite that autonomous; “although all the steps were automatically planned and controlled, their sequence was hard-coded through a considerable engineering effort.” The researchers mention that they can “envision such a sequence being automatically determined from the assembly manual, through natural-language interaction with a human supervisor or, ultimately, from an image of the chair,” although we feel like they should have a chat with Ross Knepper, whose IkeaBot seemed to do just fine without any of that stuff. In other words the robots are semi-autonomous but never get frustrated and can use basic heuristics to figure out next steps. The robots can now essentially assemble chairs in about 20 minutes, a feat that I doubt many of us can emulate. You can watch the finished dance here, in all its robotic glory. The best part? Even robots get frustrated and fling parts around: I, for one, welcome our Ikea chair manufacturing robotic overlords.

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. This week TechCrunch’s Katie Roof and Crunchbase News’s Alex Wilhelm sat down with Science Inc’s Michael Jones to dig through the latest in the world of technology and money. And goddamn was there some stuff to get through. On our even-more-stuffed-than-usual agenda this week we first dug into the Coinbase-Earn.com deal, and how it came to be. This raised the question of dividends (which somehow Alphabet still doesn’t have to pay, bringing a new high watermark to the concept of corporate adolescence) and venture firms bringing together two of their own deals under one roof. Scooting along we turned to Netflix’s staggering earnings run, including its share price rally that has been nigh-parabolic. That took us into MoviePass, whose parent company you have not heard of, and seems to be in potentially serious financial trouble. After that we jumped into Discord, a popular gaming chat service that is raising another $50 million at a $1.65 billion post-money valuation. That’s a hell of a lot of new money, and a hell of a lot of new market cap. (At this point we also started talking about League of Legends. I am sorry.) Finally, back on theme, we poured over the DocuSign IPO pricing range that it just dropped, and the Pluralsight S-1, which brought up many fun questions. All that and we had a few laughs. Hit play, and we’ll chat you all next week! Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

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Facebook’s lack of attention to how third parties are using its service to reach users ended up with CEO Mark Zuckerberg taking questions from Congressional committees. With that in mind, you’d think that others in the social media space might be more attentive than usual to potentially malicious actors on their platforms. Twitter, however, is turning the other way and insisting all is normal in Southeast Asia, despite the emergence of thousands of bot-like accounts that have followed prominent users in the region en masse over the past month. Scores of reporters and Twitter users with large followers — yours truly included — have noticed swarms of accounts with generic names, no profile photo, no bio and no tweets have followed them over the past month. It’s been a month already and the twitter bots just keep showing up. Anyone else seeing the same thing? pic.twitter.com/YEGcGnUYxd — Lulu Yilun Chen (@luluyilun) April 18, 2018 The deluge of Asia @Twitter bot follows continues unabated. Sigh pic.twitter.com/jD5JbOQnT2 — Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) April 10, 2018 These accounts might be evidence of a new ‘bot farm’ — the creation of large numbers of accounts for sale or usage on-demand which Twitter has cracked down on — or the groundwork for more nefarious activities, it’s too early to tell. In what appears to be the first regional Twitter bot campaign, a flood of suspicious new followers has been reported by users across Southeast Asia and beyond, including Thailand, Myanmar Cambodia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka among other places. While it is true that the new accounts have done nothing yet, the fact that a large number of newly-created accounts have popped up out of nowhere with the aim of following the region’s most influential voices should be enough to concern Twitter. Especially since this is Southeast Asia, a region where Facebook is beset with controversies — from its role inciting ethnic hatred in Myanmar, to allegedly assisting censors in Vietnam, witnessing users jailed for violating lese majeste in Thailand, and aiding the election of controversial Philippines leader Duterte. Then there are governments themselves. Vietnam has pledged to build a cyber army to combat “wrongful views,” while other regimes in Southeast Asia have clamped down on social media users. Despite that, Twitter isn’t commenting. The U.S. company issued a no comment to TechCrunch when we asked for further information about this rush of new accounts, and what action Twitter will take. A source close to the company suggested that the sudden accumulation of new followers is “a pretty standard sign-up, or onboarding, issue” that is down to new accounts selecting to follow the suggested accounts that Twitter proposes during the new account creation process. Twitter is more than 10 years old, and since this is the first example of this happening in Southeast Asia that explanation already seems inadequate at face value. More generally, the dismissive approach seems particularly naive. Twitter should be looking into the issue more closely, even if for now the apparent bot army isn’t being put to use yet. Facebook is considered to be the internet by many in Southeast Asia, and the social network is considerably more popular than Twitter in the region, but there remains a cause for concern here. “If we’ve learned anything from the Facebook scandal, it’s that what can at first seem innocuous can be leveraged to quite insidious and invasive effect down the line,” Francis Wade, who recently published a book on violence in Myanmar, told the Financial Times this week. “That makes Twitter’s casual dismissal of concerns around this all the more unsettling.”

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A former streaming industry exec and an AI specialist walk into a bar, they leave starting an AI company for the music industry. That’s not exactly how Singapore-based startup Musiio was formed, but it’s close enough and the outcome is the same. Co-founders Hazel Savage, formerly of Pandora and Shazam, and Swedish data scientist Aron Pettersson connected at Entrepreneur First in Singapore. The program began in London as a way to help likeminded tech connect with the potential to start projects, so it does mirror the serendipity of meeting new friends in a bar. “We’d probably never have met each other if we hadn’t gone to EF,” Savage told TechCrunch in an interview. Brit Savage was looking for new ideas after work brought her and her husband to Singapore, and after crunching through some problems that need fixing, the duo settled on an AI service that helps music platforms tackle content and curation. Push for personalization Personalization has been the big push for music streaming giants. The initial face of the streaming revolution was based on giving users instant access to millions of songs in a single place, removing the pain of downloads and paying per song. Now that streaming is established, the puck has moved to smarter solutions that help music streamers shift through those tens of millions of songs to find music they like, or better yet discover new tracks they’ll love. Spotify has moved on this in a major way. Aside from consumer products such as Discovery Weekly, a playlist that pulls in a weekly selection of music tailored to a user, it has invested considerable resources in making its product smarter. That’s including acquisitions such as music intelligence company Echo Nest for $100 million, and smaller AI startup Niland which helps make recommendations and search results smarter. Spotify has also ramped up its internal hires, too. While Spotify, which recently went public in an unconventional listing, might be the most visible company in need of smarts for music, it is not the only one by far. And we’re not even talking about direct rivals like Pandora, Apple Music, Google and co. Others involved in the less visible — but hugely lucrative — parts of the industry who also need help pouring through millions of tracks include labels, who filter through talent on a daily basis, and agencies that pick out music for brands, advertising, media, etc. Musiio co-founders Hazel Savage and Aron Pettersson Not just streaming smarts That’s the focus for Musiio, which is aiming to use AI to help those without the spending power of Spotify to automate or partially-automate a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to scouring through music. “Musiio won’t replace the need to have people listening to music,” Savage told TechCrunch. “But we can delete the inefficiencies.” The AI uses a combination of deep learning and feature extraction, the latter of which Musiio said allows it to identify and understand patterns and features of a track. The training is focused on the audio itself, rather than stats and data from third-parties which some services use to categorize tracks. Pettersson runs the AI. For what it’s worth, he cut his teeth with an algorithm for the Swedish stock market that netted him a 28 percent annual return for eight years. As an example of Musiio’s AI potential, Savage points to previous roles where she has observed music curators assigned piles of music as high as 1,300 tracks each day. “That’s more than a day’s work!” she said. “It probably takes four days to tackle and then you are three days behind. Plus, the average person loses the ability to be efficient after about the first 20 tracks.” Musiio wants to help take the burden by using AI to pick out the ‘best’ tracks, thus cutting the list of tracks to listen to down significantly. “Our systems can listen to 1,000 tracks inside four hours, after which we can give a smaller selection. For labels, that can help them be more efficient, increase hit rate and spend more time with artists helping to develop them,” Savage said. “Artists and repertoire (A&R) divisions have billion-dollar budgets, for every artist they spend maybe $2 million on development. We think we give them a better guarantee of success using AI, and [from early conversations with labels] they are very interested,” she added. Free Music Archive Musiio said it is developing solutions for a number of undisclosed clients, but one public name it is talking up is Free Music Archive (FMA), a Creative Commons-like free music site developed by independent U.S. radio station WFMU. The site offers up legal audio downloads that are particularly popular with filmmakers, non-profits, podcasters and remixers. The site has over 120,000 tracks each of which is hand-selected, but with just one part-time developer the curation side is lacking. That’s where Musiio is hoping to help make a difference. The startup has begun working with FMA to develop AI-based playlists in a project that doesn’t generate revenue but is “a lovely example of what the tech can do,” so says Savage. “Not only are we backfilling the Echo Nest partnership [after Spotify closed the service following its acquisition] but the lead track in the inaugural playlist (Kurt Vile, ‘I Wanted Everything’) had received 3,000 plays when we found it, after eight years in the database. Two days later after being playlisted by our AI, it had 6,000 plays. We are pretty excited that AI can have that kind of impact,” she explained. The Vile track is now closing on 10,000 plays two weeks after the playlist was published. For now, the playlists are created and held within Savage’s FMA account but Musiio confirmed that it is considering the potential to develop a dashboard that would allow listeners themselves to use the AI to develop playlists. That’s already part of what is building for other clients. Funding-wise, Musiio has taken SG$75,000 ($57,000) as part of its involvement in Entrepreneur First. The startup will be part of the EF demo day in July, but Savage said it has already begun to have conversations with investors with a view to raising a seed round of funding.

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Google’s long-and-winding road to figuring out messaging is taking yet another change of direction after the company called time on Allo, its newest chat app launch, in order to double down on its vision to enable an enhanced version of SMS. The company told The Verge that it is “pausing” work on Allo, which was only launched as recently as September 2016, in order to put its resources into the adoption RCS (Rich Communication Services), a messaging standard that has the potential to tie together SMS and other chat apps. RCS isn’t new, and Google has been pushing it for some time, but now the company is rebranding it as “Chat” and putting all its efforts into getting operators on board. The new strategy will see almost the entire Allo team switch to Android Messages, according to The Verge. In case you didn’t hear about it before, RCS is essentially a technology that allows basic ‘SMS’ messaging to be standardized across devices. In the same way that iMessage lets Apple device owners chat for free using data instead of paid-for SMS, RCS could allow free chats across different networks on Android or other devices. RCS can be integrated into chat apps, which is something Google has already done with Android Messages, but the tipping point is working with others, and that means operators. Unlike Apple, RCS is designed to work with carriers who can develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, which could include chat apps. Essentially, it gives them a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. They don’t make money from consumers, but they do get to keep their brand and they can look to get revenue from business services. But this approach requires operators themselves to implement the technology. That’s no easy thing since carriers don’t exactly trust tech companies — WhatsApp alone has massively eaten into its SMS and call revenues — and they don’t like working with each other, too. Google said more than 55 operators worldwide have been recruited to support Chat, but it isn’t clear exactly when they might roll it out. Microsoft is among the OEM supporters, which raises the possibility it could bring support to Windows 10, but the company was non-committal when The Verge pressed it on that possibility. Google has tried many things on messaging, but it has largely failed because it doesn’t have a ramp to users. WhatsApp benefitted from being a first mover — all the other early leaders in Western markets are nowhere to be seen today — and Facebook Messenger is built on top of the world’s most popular social network. Both of those services have over one billion active users, Allo never got to 50 million. Google search doesn’t have that contact, and the company’s previous efforts didn’t capture market share. (Hangouts was promising but it has pivoted into a tool for enterprises.) That left Google with two options, take on carriers directly with an iMessage-style service that’s built into Android, or work with them. It chose the second option. It is far messier with so many different parties involved, but it is also apparently a principled approach. “We can’t do it without these [carrier and OEM] partners. We don’t believe in taking the approach that Apple does. We are fundamentally an open ecosystem. We believe in working with partners. We believe in working with our OEMs to be able to deliver a great experience,” Anil Sabharwal, the Google executive leading Chat, told The Verge. Sabharwal refused to be drawn on a timeframe for operators rolling out Chat apps. “By the end of this year, we’ll be in a really great state, and by mid-next year, we’ll be in a place where a large percentage of users [will have] this experience,” he said, explaining that uptake could be quicker in Europe or Latin America than the U.S.. “This is not a three-to-five-year play. Our goal is to get this level of quality messaging to our users on Android within the next couple of years.” We shall see. But at least there won’t be yet more Google messaging apps launching, so there’s that.

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Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it. Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that. So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for ten or fifteen seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop. Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There. Once you put your cub on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener. The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass. But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put in in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis. Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though. You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.

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Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether. Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over Wi-Fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that? The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple of bytes. Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance. UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white. Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized. Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful. In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be sent with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air. They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS. microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device. Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it. Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data. The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

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Working in tech, it’s hard to avoid the many stories and congratulatory tweets about the latest company to close a funding round, and little wonder. It’s a milestone worth celebrating before getting back to work. Yet what’s happening in the trenches before those funding announcements roll out is often more instructive. How does one decide to make the leap in the first place? How do you mold a product or service into something that you can present to outsiders? How can you enlist people to help you when everyone you want to meet has more pressing demands on their time? These are questions that many new founders wrestle with, including Sarah McDevitt, a college basketball star turned hardware founder whose product she hopes to have in consumers’ hands by this holiday season – even while she’s acutely aware that a lot has to go right first. McDevitt didn’t anticipate being in this position five years ago when she was making a generous salary as a product manager at Microsoft, working a stone’s throw from where she’d grown up in Seattle. But like a lot of founders, McDevitt eventually felt compelled to start her now two-year-old company, Core Wellness, which aims to sell meditation experiences. We checked in with her this week about how far along she has gotten, the obstacles she wasn’t expecting, and where she goes from here. TC: You played college basketball at NYU, where you also studied math and computer science. Which was more fun? SM: [Laughs.] In high school, I used to walk to a gym that was open at all hours of the night and play until my parents were like, ‘You have to come home.’ But I’ve always loved math and education, too. TC: When you graduated, you went home to Seattle to work for Microsoft for five years. How did you get from there to launching a startup that makes it easier for people to meditate? SM: I spent my last year at Microsoft on its social responsibility team, working on global education initiatives, and on work trip, I visited a university in South Africa that was incorporating meditation into its curriculum. I was amazed at the effects that meditation had on this student population that had endured in some cases extreme poverty and violence. It was really eye-opening to me. I soon discovered Stanford’s learning design program and it was the thing that I was looking for. I knew I wanted to study stress and what happens in our bodies and how meditation and mindfulness can combat it. I still feel lucky that I got in. TC: Did you want to teach about meditation or did you head to Stanford thinking you wanted to start a company? SM: I thought I’d design something for high school districts to address mental well-being for teenagers. For my master’s thesis — which had to be a design project — I’d designed a kind of mini curriculum for high school students that any high school teacher could implement. That’s what led to the idea of Core. I thought it might be hard for teenagers to buy into meditation without meaningful bio feedback, which is at the root of what we’re building. I’d also started thinking about using a physical object that could help younger students practice mindfulness. But the more research I did, the more I realized that adults really struggle with meditation. And when you look at how stress affects our brains and bodies, it’s clearly something we should be addressing. I wanted to see if I could create something that applies to adults as well. TC: So step one was . . . SM: Looking for a cofounder. I knew I wanted camaraderie. But I didn’t have anyone who was in on this idea with me, so it was like finding someone to marry without dating them. I posted on collaboration boards at Stanford about the skills I was looking for — electrical engineering, app development for an early prototype. I figured I’d find someone with the skills, then work with that person for a few hours a week and see how things went. TC: You found that person, Brian Bolze, who is also Core’s head of product. Did you know it was a fit straightaway? SM: We had coffee and really vibe’d on our worldview and mindset around mediation and the kind of brand I’d wanted to create. Then we started working together, five hours a week, then 10, then 20. Then suddenly, it was like, ‘Hey, so are you going to stay in school?’ He eventually took that leap, and I’m incredibly thankful to have him. I think the emotional partnership is just as important as having a skills match. TC: Core is making both hardware and software. What was building that first hardware prototype like? SM:  We started by using hobbyist materials like Arduino, and we used Stanford for 3D printing access and a hardware maker space that’s now out of business. I was also networking constantly through my Stanford classmates and previous coworkers, saying, ‘I’m looking for help with PCV manufacturing.’ or ‘Do you know someone who has invested in hardware before and can help us out.’ I was asking for a feedback as a way to get meetings. I did that a ton. Then we just started working on a prototype that was just functional enough to put in users’ hands and get feedback. The same was true with our business model. We’d ask for feedback from Stanford professors who’ve invested before, contacts I’d made, angel investors. TC: You’ve raised a tiny bit of funding so far, from the hardware-focused venture firm Bolt and Bose, the speaker and headphones company. Can you talk about how that came together? SM: Kate McAndrew, [a VC at Bolt] runs these women-in-hardware meetings and that’s kind of how I found my way into the community. My previous contacts were in software, so I went to her meet-ups to learn about the hardware business and eventually, over nine months, when she thought we were finally in a place to pitch Bolt’s partners, we did that. TC: You’re based in San Francisco. Can I ask how, before you raised a bit of funding, how you were supporting yourself? SM: Once we’d begun work on prototypes, we’d raised a friends-and-family round that we used to pay for industrial design help. Working at MIcrosoft, too, I’d saved a bunch of money. I didn’t necessarily have a reason why at the time but I naturally [spent] less than what I was making, knowing I wanted to enable myself some freedom. Grad school was incredibly expensive, but I did still have some savings I could live off for the first six months or so until we raised that family round. TC: Were your friends and family receptive? SM: It was really challenging for me personally. To go to people with this really new idea that has pretty much no validation and ask for money was hard. I did learn through that process there are a lot of people who want to support you, and a little bit from a lot of people adds up. It was enough to get to the point where we had functioning prototype.  TC: How far away are you from selling to your first customer? SM: In two months, we’ll have an exclusive public launch. We’re making a couple hundred meditation trainers with the goal in mind of finding our “core” tribe — people who love Core, latch onto it and keep coming back. Once we sell that and have that engagement data, we’ll go raise a seed round. TC: This is a hardware product and subscription software. How much will you charge and how does it work? SM: We’re charging $199 [for the handheld trainer], along with a monthly subscription with personalized content. We’ll also be launching virtual meditation classes so that you can check in with live instructors and feel connected to a community of other people meditating with you. TC: How are you personalizing the content? SM: By using data to recommend to you content that we know will be effective for you. The first step [in meditation] is to turn your attention to one thing; we’re helping you do that by giving you this grounding, comforting object with a pulse that guides you through breathing exercises and technique. As for personalized recommendations, if you’ve been a user for a while and we see [based on biosensor data] that a body scan technique has been effective, we might say in the app, ‘Hey, this, four-minute body scan has been really effective in reducing stress so let’s try this today.’ TC: How much seed funding do you hope to raise? SM: We’re targeting $4 million, most immediately to fund a holiday launch and enter the market. TC: And if you miss that window? SM: I don’t think we need to wait for another. There’s huge demand for help with meditation. TC: And you’ll be selling exclusively through your site or are you talking with possible distribution partners? SM: We’re partnering with yoga and fitness studios on events and experiences and meditation stations. We also have some pop-up experiences planned with brands in the Bay Area. TC: Building hardware is hard. What’s the biggest thing that’s gone wrong? SM: First, I will say that the hardware community is extremely helpful and collaborative, unlike the world of enterprise software, which is pretty cutthroat and where people are more closed off to helping others. We’ve gotten so much help from other founders. Still, you’re right. As one example, we were getting our electrodes from a prototyping shop in China, and they have to be stainless steel 304 to be conductive. When they sent the electrodes to us and they weren’t working, we did all this variable isolation before eventually figuring out that they’d used a different metal alloy. When we told them, they were like, ‘Yeah. They’re stainless steel 304.’ [Laughs.] It was a bad setback, but now metals testing happens much earlier in the process, and we might not have thought of that being a necessary step otherwise. You also learn the importance of a timeline buffer for things like that to happen. TC: Are you meeting with investors yet? SM: I’m out networking. We’re not fundraising yet, but we’re having the right conversations. That way investors are aware of what we’re doing and that we’re coming.

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posted 6 days ago on techcrunch
Facebook isn’t the only one in the hot seat over data privacy. A flaw in LinkedIn’s AutoFill plugin that websites use to let you quickly complete forms could have allowed hackers to steal your full name, phone number, email address, location (ZIP code), company, and job title. Malicious sites have been able to invisibly render the plugin on their entire page so if users who are logged into LinkedIn click anywhere, they’d effectively be hitting a hidden “AutoFill with LinkedIn” button and giving up their data. Researcher Jack Cable discovered the issue on April 9th, 2018 and immediately disclosed it to LinkedIn. The company issued a fix on April 10th but didn’t inform the public of the issue. Cable quickly informed LinkedIn that its fix, which restricted the use of its AutoFill feature to whitelisted sites who pay LinkedIn to host their ads, still left it open to abuse. If any of those sites have cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, which Cable confirmed some do, hackers can still run AutoFill on their sites by installing an iframe to the vulnerable whitelisted site. He got no response from LinkedIn over the last 9 days so Cable reached out to TechCrunch. LinkedIn’s AutoFill tool LinkedIn tells TechCrunch it doesn’t have evidence that the weakness was exploited to gather user data. But Cable says “it is entirely possible that a company has been abusing this without LinkedIn’s knowledge, as it wouldn’t send any red flags to LinkedIn’s servers.” I demoed the security fail on a site Cable set up. It was able to show me my LinkedIn sign-up email address with a single click anywhere on the page, without me ever knowing I was interacting with an exploited version of LinkedIn’s plugin “It seems like LinkedIn accepts the risk of whitelisted websites (and it is a part of their business model), yet this is a major security concern” Cable wrote to TechCrunch. A LinkedIn spokesperson issued this statement to TechCrunch: “We immediately prevented unauthorized use of this feature, once we were made aware of the issue. We are now pushing another fix that will address potential additional abuse cases and it will be in place shortly. While we’ve seen no signs of abuse, we’re constantly working to ensure our members’ data stays protected. We appreciate the researcher responsibly reporting this and our security team will continue to stay in touch with them. For clarity, LinkedIn AutoFill is not broadly available and only works on whitelisted domains for approved advertisers. It allows visitors to a website to choose to pre-populate a form with information from their LinkedIn profile.” Facebook has recently endured heavy scrutiny regarding data privacy and security, and just yesterday confirmed it was investigating an issue with unauthorized JavaScript trackers pulling in user info from sites using Login With Facebook. But Cable’s findings demonstrate that other tech giants deserve increased scrutiny too. In an effort to colonize the web with their buttons and gather more data about their users, sites like LinkedIn have played fast and loose with people’s personally identifiable information. The research shows how relying on whitelists of third-party sites doesn’t always solve a problem. All it takes is for one of those sites to have its own security flaw, and a bigger vulnerability can be preyed upon. OpenBugBounty shows the prevalence of cross-site scripting problems. These “XSS” vulnerabilities accounted for 84% of secuity flaws documented by Symantec in 2007, and bug bounty service HackerOne defines XSS as a massive issue to this day. With all eyes on security, tech companies may need to become more responsive to researchers pointing out flaws. While LinkedIn initially moved quickly, its attention to the issue lapsed while only a broken fix was in place. Meanwhile, government officials considering regulation should focus on strengthening disclosure requirements for companies that discover breaches or vulnerabilities. If they know they’ll have to embarass themselves by informing the public about their security flaws, they might work harder to keep everything locked tight.

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posted 6 days ago on techcrunch
Square has acquired elements of corporate catering startup Zesty . Square, which already owns on-demand food delivery service Caviar, plans to use Zesty’s assets to strengthen Caviar’s corporate ordering business, Caviar for Teams. Neither company disclosed financial terms of the deal, but the plan is for Caviar and Zesty to operate independently in the short term. “Restaurants turn to Caviar to reach more diners and grow their businesses,” Square Caviar Lead Gokul Rajaram said in a press release. “Expanding our corporate catering product with Zesty enables us to offer our restaurant partners another way to boost sales through higher-margin, large-format catering orders,” said Rajaram, Caviar Lead at Square. “Caviar is thriving, and we’re excited to supercharge its success with Zesty and double down on an area with great opportunity to drive more growth for our business.” Since its acquisition of Caviar in 2014, Square has acquired OrderAhead’s pickup business to launch Caviar Pickup and Entrees On-Trays to expand its footprint in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area. Zesty currently partners with about 150 restaurants in San Francisco, which is the only city in which it operates. Some of Zesty’s customers include Snap, Splunk and TechCrunch. Zesty, which first launched in 2013 under a different name, had previously raised $20.7 million in venture funding. “Adding Zesty’s offerings, like sophisticated menu-planning tools and algorithms, white-glove catering services, and nutrition and allergen customization, will help us expand our catering offering and even better serve companies of all sizes,” the Caviar team wrote on Medium. “Plus, it provides our restaurant partners with more opportunities to reach new corporate customers.”

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posted 6 days ago on techcrunch
TechCrunch’s top goal at Disrupt SF (September 5-7) is to help early-stage founders get lots of attention, which is why every year we introduce more and better ways to make that happen. This year we’re adding TC Top Picks, a new program that will provide 60 top founders the opportunity to exhibit free of charge for one day in Startup Alley and three free Founder Passes for all three days of the show, including access to CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s founder-investor matching service. Here is how founders can win a top spot in TC Top Picks. To qualify, the startup must fit in one of the categories listed below, which reflect the major tracks at Disrupt SF. The editors will pick five TC Top Picks startups for each category and they get the exhibition space with special “TC Top Picks” signage, three free Founder Passes plus a three-minute interview on our Showcase Stage. Click here to fill out the application, which should take about five minutes. (Note we have also launched an updated application app, which allows founders to create a single application and use it across all of TechCrunch’s programs — including Startup Battlefield. TechCrunch will notify the winners by July 20, but applications close June 29 — so don’t lose any time, apply today. Here are the categories we’re featuring at Disrupt SF: Artificial intelligence (AI) “What’s your AI strategy?” supplanted “What’s you mobile strategy? as one of THE big investor questions a couple of years ago, and venture investment in the sector doubled last year, reaching $12 billion, according to KPMG. Augmented and virtual reality A strong contender for the next major platform (on par with the PC, the internet and mobile), AR/VR is a fast growing category in Crunchbase, which lists 1,993 startups, and IDC estimates 2017 AR/VR revenues will grow by 2020 to reach $143.3 billion. Blockchain Distributed ledger technologies have so far produced cryptocurrency mania, digital collectibles startup CryptoKitties, a new funding paradigm called the ICO and more than 100,000 companies in Crunchbase professing a blockchain angle. Biotech Whether it’s genetic manipulation through CRISPR or early cancer detection, the deep science startups in the biotech world are moving fast on the back of rapid technical advances. Funding hit a new record in 2017 of $9.3 billion, according to PitchBook. Financial technology (fintech) The startup assault on the world of banking, investing, insurance and fiat currencies is in full gear, and Accenture reports the category in 2017 collected investments reaching $27.4 billion in 2017. Gaming Gaming startups cut across most categories of the digital world, from AR/VR to streaming platforms to mobile, as well as entirely original concepts, like esports. Tabulating it all isn’t easy, but gamers and game tech folks know who they are. Healthtech No big sector is more in need of disruption than healthcare, and $4.5 billion in venture poured into the sector last year. Crunchbase counts 20,912 companies in the category apps to track biometrics to medical records tracking (on the blockchain, of course). New retail E-commerce is so 1999, and the future is new retail, manifested by direct-to-consumer brands, online to offline, or what Alibaba founder Jack Ma calls “the integration of online, offline, logistics and data across a single value chain.” Mobility Getting around has never been easier, thanks to ride and bike sharing, never mind the autonomous vehicles and wearable robotics to come. Crunchbase lists 2,333 companies focused on getting people where they aim to go. Privacy/security The digital vulnerability of everything from credit cards to the democratic process has spawned the creation of 5,627 privacy and security startups, according to Crunchbase, to take on a market expected to reach more than $181.77 billion by 2021. Robots and automation Huge advances in sensors, AI, materials and GPUs have unleashed a surge in robotics startups, producing everything from warehouse automation to drone delivery to BigDog. IDC predicts that global spending on robotics will double from $103 in three years. Space What Morgan Stanley dubbed Space 2.0 is entrepreneurship in space, whether that’s zero-g manufacturing, launch platforms, micro-satellites or space mining. Count the startups in the dozens and the market 30 years from now in the trillions, according to Merrill Lynch. Get started on your Top Picks application here. You can also get your individual passes to Disrupt SF at the Super Early Bird Prices here.

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posted 6 days ago on techcrunch
Blockchain technology is set to have a profound impact on a wide variety of industries, ranging from capital markets to the music business. While some use cases may seem obvious, the technology is still surrounded by its fair share of hype and uncertainty. As a manager, how should you approach the subject, and when should you put your money where your mouth is and actively aim to implement blockchain technology? According to Juniper Research, six of 10 large corporations are either actively considering or in the process of deploying blockchain technology. Amongst companies that have reached the Proof of Concept stage, two-thirds (66 percent) expected blockchain to be integrated into their systems by the end of 2018.  The research claimed that those companies that would benefit most from blockchain include those with the need for (1) transparency in transactions, (2) current dependence legacy storage systems and (3) a high volume of transmitted information. Looking at the reasons for implementing blockchain, there is an inherent risk that managers eager to explore new technologies jump to conclusions without exploring alternative options. According to the research, systemic change rather than technological may provide both better and cheaper solutions to the issue at hand. For many corporations, the go-to approach to investigate potential use cases for blockchain is to look for inefficiencies in current processes.This approach is guaranteed to provide some results, but often the solution is to truly re-design legacy processes to fit a digital world rather than exploring new and unknown technologies. One reason why blockchain often emerges as an answer to many problems is that it is easy to imagine high-level use cases of blockchain technology. However, as we venture under the surface of such use cases, applying blockchain technology to a known problem is all too often a theoretical solution. If we look at it, blockchain in its simplest form is an alternative to the traditional database. Blockchain differs from a database in many ways, but the most significant exception is the decentralized nature of blockchain. While a database requires a central authority to maintain and manage data, blockchain offers a decentralized approach to storage and verification of data. However, this feature comes at a cost. Blockchains in their current state (at least public ones) have some scaling issues, making them slower than traditional databases. In addition, users must pay a fee for each “transaction” on the database, which is fluctuating and unpredictable. A potential switch involves rethinking everything, recoding most things and betting on a new technology that will need many years of work to become as mature as whichever database you’re currently using. To make things a bit more confusing, the term blockchain has become a bit diluted as the hype has continued to bloom. Terms like permissioned versus permissionless and private versus public blockchains are circulating; the term has become so widespread that it may lose some of its meaning. Permissioned blockchains are operated by known entities such as stakeholders of a given industry, whereas private blockchains are operated by one entity. These approaches have become particularly popular in the financial industry, as they focus on immutability and efficiency rather than anonymity and transparency. However, if we look closely at the inherent properties of a private or permissioned blockchain, they resemble a shared database, and critics argue that the term private blockchain is just a confusing name for a shared database. Estonia’s digital identity solution is an example of the use of the blockchain as a marketing tactic, as the company providing the underlying technology rebranded its offering from “hash-linked time-stamping” to “blockchain technology” just in time to ride the blockchain hype. With last year’s crypto-craze, there is no shortage of companies claiming to be a “blockchain-company” in order to boost valuations. With this in mind, there are a couple of simple control questions to help guide one through the decision process as to whether one should explore blockchain technology or just stick with a good-old database. First of all, if it works, don’t fix it. If you’re satisfied with your database setup today, there should be no rush to replace this. A potential switch involves rethinking everything, recoding most things and betting on a new technology that will need many years of work to become as mature as whichever database you’re currently using. Are you depending on a third party to carry out transactions or to create trust between multiple stakeholders? If the use of a trusted third party to establish and maintain trust across stakeholders is in play, it may be the time to investigate the use of blockchain technology. On the other hand, if performance and transaction speed is the most important factor, you should stick with a database… for now. Do you need to handle highly dynamic data with a clear audit trail? Blockchains offer a flexible capacity by enabling many parties to write new entries into a system of record that is also held by many custodians. To make things somewhat easier, there are numerous flowcharts circulating on the internet for when to use a blockchain (many of these can be found here). While there are many reasons to steer clear of blockchain technology, there are equally many potential valuable use cases — such as royalty distribution in the music industry, cross-border payments, management of shared ownership such as timeshares, health records and many more. For instance, a decentralized Facebook might have mitigated the current array of scandals related to deliberately spreading misinformation to influence public opinion and the misuse of personal data. For managers looking to explore blockchain, it is easy to both be dazzled by the promises of new technology as well as dismiss the unknown. In this case, it is important to stay curious and have a practical approach, while still being able to have a vision that spans beyond the daily operations.

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