What does a pandemic say about the tech we’ve built?

There’s a joke* being reshared on chat apps that takes the form of a multiple choice question — asking who’s the leading force in workplace digital transformation? The red-lined punchline is not the CEO or CTO but: C) COVID-19.

There’s likely more than a grain of truth underpinning the quip. The novel coronavirus is pushing a lot of metaphorical buttons right now. ‘Pause’ buttons for people and industries, as large swathes of the world’s population face quarantine conditions that can resemble house arrest. The majority of offline social and economic activities are suddenly off limits.

Such major pauses in our modern lifestyle may even turn into a full reset, over time. The world as it was, where mobility of people has been all but taken for granted — regardless of the environmental costs of so much commuting and indulged wanderlust — may never return to ‘business as usual’.

If global leadership rises to the occasional then the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to rethink how we structure our societies and economies — to make a shift towards lower carbon alternatives. After all, how many physical meetings do you really need when digital connectivity is accessible and reliable? As millions more office workers log onto the day job from home that number suddenly seems vanishingly small.

COVID-19 is clearly strengthening the case for broadband to be a utility — as so much more activity is pushed online. Even social media seems to have a genuine community purpose during a moment of national crisis when many people can only connect remotely, even with their nearest neighbours.

Hence the reports of people stuck at home flocking back to Facebook to sound off in the digital town square. Now the actual high street is off limits the vintage social network is experiencing a late second wind.

Facebook understands this sort of higher societal purpose already, of course. Which is why it’s been so proactive about building features that nudge users to ‘mark yourself safe’ during extraordinary events like natural disasters, major accidents and terrorist attacks. (Or indeed why it encouraged politicians to get into bed with its data platform in the first place — no matter the cost to democracy.)

In less fraught times, Facebook’s ‘purpose’ can be loosely summed to ‘killing time’. But with ever more sinkholes being drilled by the attention economy that’s a function under ferocious and sustained attack.

Over the years the tech giant has responded by engineering ways to rise back to the top of the social heap — including spying on and buying up competition, or directly cloning rival products. It’s been pulling off this trick, by hook or by crook, for over a decade. Albeit, this time Facebook can’t take any credit for the traffic uptick; A pandemic is nature’s dark pattern design.

What’s most interesting about this virally disrupted moment is how much of the digital technology that’s been built out online over the past two decades could very well have been designed for living through just such a dystopia.

Seen through this lens, VR should be having a major moment. A face computer that swaps out the stuff your eyes can actually see with a choose-your-own-digital-adventure of virtual worlds to explore, all from the comfort of your living room? What problem are you fixing VR? Well, the conceptual limits of human lockdown in the face of a pandemic quarantine right now, actually…

Virtual reality has never been a compelling proposition vs the rich and textured opportunity of real life, except within very narrow and niche bounds. Yet all of a sudden here we all are — with our horizons drastically narrowed and real-life news that’s ceaselessly harrowing. So it might yet end up wry punchline to another multiple choice joke: ‘My next vacation will be: A) Staycation, B) The spare room, C) VR escapism.’

It’s videoconferencing that’s actually having the big moment, though. Turns out even a pandemic can’t make VR go viral. Instead, long lapsed friendships are being rekindled over Zoom group chats or Google Hangouts. And Houseparty — a video chat app — has seen surging downloads as barflies seek out alternative night life with their usual watering-holes shuttered.

Bored celebs are TikToking. Impromptu concerts are being livestreamed from living rooms via Instagram and Facebook Live. All sorts of folks are managing social distancing and the stress of being stuck at home alone (or with family) by distant socializing — signing up to remote book clubs and discos; joining virtual dance parties and exercise sessions from bedrooms. Taking a few classes together. The quiet pub night with friends has morphed seamlessly into a bring-your-own-bottle group video chat.

This is not normal — but nor is it surprising. We’re living in the most extraordinary time. And it seems a very human response to mass disruption and physical separation (not to mention the trauma of an ongoing public health emergency that’s killing thousands of people a day) to reach for even a moving pixel of human comfort. Contactless human contact is better than none at all.

Yet the fact all these tools are already out there, ready and waiting for us to log on and start streaming, should send a dehumanizing chill down society’s backbone.

It underlines quite how much consumer technology is being designed to reprogram how we connect with each other, individually and in groups, in order that uninvited third parties can cut a profit.

Back in the pre-COVID-19 era, a key concern being attached to social media was its ability to hook users and encourage passive feed consumption — replacing genuine human contact with voyeuristic screening of friends’ lives. Studies have linked the tech to loneliness and depression. Now we’re literally unable to go out and meet friends the loss of human contact is real and stark. So being popular online in a pandemic really isn’t any kind of success metric.

Houseparty, for example, self-describes as a “face to face social network” — yet it’s quite the literal opposite; you’re foregoing face-to-face contact if you’re getting virtually together in app-wrapped form.

While the implication of Facebook’s COVID-19 traffic bump is that the company’s business model thrives on societal disruption and mainstream misery. Which, frankly, we knew already. Data-driven adtech is another way of saying it’s been engineered to spray you with ad-flavored dissatisfaction by spying on what you get up to. The coronavirus just hammers the point home.

The fact we have so many high-tech tools on tap for forging digital connections might feel like amazing serendipity in this crisis — a freemium bonanza for coping with terrible global trauma. But such bounty points to a horrible flip side: It’s the attention economy that’s infectious and insidious. Before ‘normal life’ plunged off a cliff all this sticky tech was labelled ‘everyday use’; not ‘break out in a global emergency’.

It’s never been clearer how these attention-hogging apps and services are designed to disrupt and monetize us; to embed themselves in our friendships and relationships in a way that’s subtly dehumanizing; re-routing emotion and connections; nudging us to swap in-person socializing for virtualized fuzz that designed to be data-mined and monetized by the same middlemen who’ve inserted themselves unasked into our private and social lives.

Captured and recompiled in this way, human connection is reduced to a series of dilute and/or meaningless transactions. The platforms deploying armies of engineers to knob-twiddle and pull strings to maximize ad opportunities, no matter the personal cost.

It’s also no accident we’re also seeing more of the vast and intrusive underpinnings of surveillance capitalism emerge, as the COVID-19 emergency rolls back some of the obfuscation that’s used to shield these business models from mainstream view in more normal times. The trackers are rushing to seize and colonize an opportunistic purpose.

Tech and ad giants are falling over themselves to get involved with offering data or apps for COVID-19 tracking. They’re already in the mass surveillance business so there’s likely never felt like a better moment than the present pandemic for the big data lobby to press the lie that individuals don’t care about privacy, as governments cry out for tools and resources to help save lives.

First the people-tracking platforms dressed up attacks on human agency as ‘relevant ads’. Now the data industrial complex is spinning police-state levels of mass surveillance as pandemic-busting corporate social responsibility. How quick the wheel turns.

But platforms should be careful what they wish for. Populations that find themselves under house arrest with their phones playing snitch might be just as quick to round on high tech gaolers as they’ve been to sign up for a friendly video chat in these strange and unprecedented times.

Oh and Zoom (and others) — more people might actually read your ‘privacy policy‘ now they’ve got so much time to mess about online. And that really is a risk.

*Source is a private Twitter account called @MBA_ish

It’s still easy to find coronavirus mask ads on Facebook

Ads for face masks are still appearing on Facebook, Instagram and Google, according to a review of the platforms carried out by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP). This despite pledges by the platforms that they would stamp out ads which seek to profit from the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook said on March 6 that it would temporarily ban commerce listings and advertisements for medical face masks, in an effort to combat price-gouging and misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Google followed suit a few days later, saying it would temporarily ban all medical face mask ads “out of an abundance of caution”.

The risk of online misinformation exacerbating a global public health crisis has been front of mind for policymakers in many Western markets. Meanwhile front line medical staff continue to face shortages of vital personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, as they battle rising rates of infection.

There has also been concern that online sellers are attempting to cash in on a public health crisis by price gouging and/or targeting Internet users with ads for substandard masks.

Early last week two democrat senators urged the US’ FTC to act, blasting Google for continuing to allow ads for face masks to be shown to Internet users.

A week later and ads are still circulating.

The TTP — a research project by the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, a group which focuses on exposing misconduct and malfeasance in public life — reported finding web users still being targeted with face mask ads on Google this week.

It also conducted a review of Facebook and Instagram, and was able to find more than 130 pages on Facebook listing masks for sale, including some using the platform’s ecommerce tools. 

“One Facebook Page called ‘CoronaVirus Mask’ offers a ‘respiratory mask collection,’ with prices ranging from $32 to $37, and uses Facebook’s ‘Shop’ feature to display its merchandise and allow people to add purchases to their cart,” it writes in a blog post. “Facebook’s ‘check out on website’ button then directs users to complete the purchase on the seller’s website.”

“Facebook pages that use WhatsApp to establish contact with buyers are employing a tactic commonly used by wildlife and other traffickers, who often display goods on Facebook and then arrange the actual purchase through WhatsApp encrypted messages. The Facebook Page ‘Surgical Face Mask For Sale,’ for example, has a video showing boxes of medical masks and the seller’s WhatsApp number scrawled on a piece of paper,” it added.

“A visit to one of these Facebook pages often triggers recommendations for other pages selling face masks, a sign that the platform’s algorithms are actually amplifying the reach of these sketchy sellers. TTP, without logging into Facebook, went to the page for ‘Corona Mask Shop’ and was served up ‘Related Pages’ for ‘Corona Mask 247’ and ‘Corona MASK on sale.'”

TechCrunch conducted our own searches on Facebook today and while some obvious search terms returned no results a little tweaking of keywords choice and we were quickly able to find additional pages hawking face masks — such as the below example grabbed from a Facebook page calling itself ‘Face Mask Manufacturer’.

From this page Facebook’s algorithm then recommended more pages — with names like ‘Medical Masks’ and ‘Dispo mask for sale’ — which also appeared to be selling masks.

The TTP’s review also found mask ads circulating on Facebook-owned Instagram.

“One Instagram account for @coronavsmask reads, ‘Act now before it’s too late! GET your N95 Respiratory Face Mask NOW!’ It only has a single post but already counts over 6,300 followers,” it wrote. “An account created on March 14 called @handsanitizers_and_coronamask includes over a dozen posts offering such products.”

It also found “several” Instagram accounts that sell drugs had begun to incorporate medical face masks into their offerings.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to our request for comment on the findings.

In further searches the group was reproduced examples of Google’s third party advertising display network serving ads for face masks alongside news stories related to the coronavirus — an issue highlighted by Sen. Mark Warner in a tweet last week when he blasted the company for “still running ads for facemasks and other coronavirus scams”.

“The Facebook mask pages were searched and collected on March 17-18 using the terms “corona mask,” “N95,” and “surgical mask” in Facebook’s search function,” a TTP spokesman told us when asked for more info about its review. “Of the more than 130 pages identified, 43 were created in the month of March, more than a dozen of those just days before TTP ran the searches.”

“We don’t have the same level of data from Instagram/Google. Instagram’s search function does not lend itself to the same search ability; it doesn’t bring up a list of accounts based on a single term like Facebook’s search function does. With Google, our goal was to show examples of Google-served ads; those were identified in news stories on March 18,” he added.

We reached out to Google for comment on the findings and a spokesman told us the company has a dedicated task force that has removed “millions” of ads in the past week alone — which he said jad already led to a sharp decrease in face mask ads. But Google said “opportunistic advertisers” had been trying to run “an unprecedented number” of these ads on its platforms.

Here’s Google’s statement:

Since January, we’ve blocked ads for products that aim to capitalise on coronavirus, including a temporary ban on face mask ads. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen opportunistic advertisers try to run an unprecedented number of these ads on our platforms. We have a dedicated task force working to combat this issue and have removed millions of ads in the past week alone. We’re monitoring the situation closely and continue to make real-time adjustments to protect our users.

Google declined to specify how many people it has working to identify and remove mask ads, saying only that the taskforce is made up of members from its product, engineering, enforcement and policy teams — and that it’s been set up with coverage across time zones.

It also said the examples highlighted by TTP are already over a week old and do not reflect the impact of its newest enforcement measures.

The company told us it’s analysing both ad content and how they’re served to enhance its takedown capacity.

Declining ad rates may signal a reset for startup SEM strategies

With limited prospects for growth, one of the iron laws of economic downturns is that advertising is among the first budgets to be cut.

Advertising revenues have already cratered at many alt-weekly newspapers, which heavily rely on local events and restaurants that have been shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. BuzzFeed even went so far (as they do) to label it a “media extinction event.”

Clearly it’s bad times, but I wanted to get a lot more granular around the data for ad rates, particularly around top startups. So I compiled a list of a little more than 100 unicorns across a variety of sectors and explored how the prices of their search engine keywords have changed with the global pandemic that is sparking a global recession.

The results aren’t surprising — there has been a collapse in prices for almost all ads (with some very interesting exceptions we will get to in a bit). But the variations across startups in their online ad performance says a lot about industries like food delivery and enterprise software, and also the long-term revenue performance of Google, Facebook and other digital advertising networks.

A quick overview of the data

It’s common for startups to buy their own keywords on search engines like Google and the App Store. Owning that top rank guarantees that their own company’s page is the first result a user sees and prevents competitors from buying their name, potentially intercepting customers.

Mozilla expands its partnership with ad-free subscription service Scroll

Mozilla just announced a new initiative called Firefox Better Web with Scroll, which combines the tracking protection built into its Firefox browser with the ad-free browsing experience offered by Scroll .

Last year, Firefox turned on something called Enhanced Tracking Protection for all its users by default, blocking third-party cookies and crypto-mining. Scroll, meanwhile, is startup that recently launched a subscription service allowing you to read sites like BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, Salon, Slate and Vox without ads, with the revenue split among the publishers that you’re actually visiting.

Mozilla has already been working with Scroll to collect feedback on this approach from small groups of Firefox users. Here’s how the company summarized its findings:

  • Users see ads as distracting and say their online experience is broken (in the tech world, we call it breakage).
  • Users care a great deal about supporting journalism. Many users intentionally choose not to install ad-blockers because of the impact that it would have on publishers.
  • Users want to support Mozilla because we’re a non-profit and put our users first with Firefox.

Now, anyone in the United States who’s interested in trying this out can sign up for a Firefox account and install the Scroll extension. They’ll need to pay for a Scroll subscription as well — the company’s currently charging an introductory price of $2.49 per month, with plans to eventually increase to $4.99.

In a blog post, Scroll said the results since launch are delivering on its promise to bring publishers more money than advertising — in fact, publishers are seeing an average $30 to $40 RPM (revenue per thousand pageviews) from Scroll visitors.

“The model works, and combined with Firefox’s best ever private browsing experience, we can bring a better web to many more,” the company said.

Yelp commits $25M in waived fees and free services to local restaurants and nightlife

Yelp announced this morning that it’s making a number of changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, it says it will be providing $25 million to local restaurants and nightlife businesses that are seeing a massive drop in business as a result of the crisis. This will take the form “waived advertising fees, and free advertising, products and services,” including free page upgrades for access to advanced promotional features.

This might not seem quite as helpful as cash grants that allow businesses to pay their bills, but Yelp’s data suggests that businesses are going to need help reaching customers, as consumer interest in restaurants has fallen by 54%, and 60% for nightlife businesses.

That drop, of course, is the correct response to the urgent need for social distancing, but Yelp says that as businesses shift their models — whether that’s to delivery/takeout or to virtual offerings — they need ways to tell their customers about it. So it will be offering new products to help them do that:

As many businesses transition to a virtual or online service model, we’ll soon be releasing new service offering selections for businesses to indicate if they offer virtual consultations, classes, tours, shows and performances, along with search functionality that will make these virtual services easy for people to find. Most businesses that offer a virtual service – such as yoga classes, therapy sessions, tax services, or tutoring sessions – will be able to let people know that they’re still open for business and available to the consumers that rely on their services.

And on the delivery side, Yelp says it will be adding support for contact-free delivery in its check-out process (through its partnership with Grubhub, which already offers this option).

The company also says it’s taking steps to ensure that businesses don’t suffer from unjustified “reputational harm” during the outbreak. For example, Yelp says it will have “zero tolerance for any claims in reviews of contracting COVID-19 from a business or its employees, or negative reviews about a business being closed during what would be their regular open hours in normal circumstances.”

Lastly, Yelp says it has mandated that all of its office employees work from home — which you’d think would be a no brainer, but apparently there are some companies that disagree.

No mute necessary: Taiv replaces live TV ads at bars with custom content

Live TV is a staple of bars and restaurants, packing sports fans in during playoffs and convincing people to grab one more beer to finish off that late-night X-Files rerun before heading home. But the commercials are a pain. Taiv turns TV ads into opportunities by sensing when they start and immediately switching to the bar’s own promo content.

It’s one of those ideas that seems incredibly obvious in retrospect. With recorded TV you can sometimes skip ads, but it’s harder when they’re broadcast live. In that case the thing people tend to do is hit mute or change the channel — simple enough, but it seems like a waste and a chore for already busy staff. And of course the patrons don’t like ads, either.

Taiv founder and CEO Noah Palansky ran into this issue himself one day and saw an opportunity.

“I was sitting in a bar, the TV cut to commercial, and it showed an ad for, literally, another bar down the street,” he said, and what’s more it was advertising lower prices than what he was paying. “If they were showing me craft beers or events they had going on I’d be super into it, but instead it made me feel like I was getting ripped off.”

If it’s okay for bar owners to switch channels when ads come on, why not something that did that automatically? And instead of surfing for another game or show, why not just switch to pre-made content? It led him to found the company debuting today at Y Combinator’s (virtual) demo day.

Taiv installs hardware at the restaurant that sits between the live feed and the TV, analyzing the image so that it can instantly understand that a commercial has come on, and switch over to custom content before anyone even notices.

“We really feel strongly that what we’re doing helps businesses a lot,” Palansky said. “All it looks like on their end is they say, we just launched a promotion on chicken wings, or we have these new beers on tap. Kind of like restaurants have table toppers or pamphlets — it lets them spread awareness to people, but instead hurting their atmosphere, it helps. And we make all the content for them, automate it and include it.”

“The first thing that happens is that within a week people call and are like, ‘everyone has noticed this!’ One customer saw a 14 percent revenue increase,” he continued. “They’re a Greek restaurant and they had Greek beers, but no one ordered these. They said, ‘hey, we import these’ on the TV and alcohol sales went up 14 percent.”

The value seems obvious. But the execution puzzled me. Doing computer vision on a live stream and detecting when a commercial comes on is a deceptively difficult task — commercials don’t all look the same, and some look a lot like shows! How could they do it in just a few frames?

My first thought was that of someone who’s been burned too many times by AI startups. I asked whether there was a low-wage worker somewhere being paid to manually switch the content by watching every channel simultaneously.

Palansky laughed — because they had considered it. “Our first idea was that exact idea, we literally thought we could hire someone to sit in a room,” he said. “But we needed to be versatile and work with lots of stations, very local ones. If we only supported major broadcasts we’re limiting what customers could show.”

Co-founders (left to right) Jordan Davis, Noah Palansky, and Avi Stoller holding the Taiv hardware.

My second thought was that there was some kind of “tell” that the system could tap into, a watermark or secret “local affiliates, start rolling ads now” signal. Turns out that used to exist but doesn’t any more, or is wrapped up in strange copyright law.

“There are very strict laws about transmitting signals, even timing signals saying, it’s hockey now, now it’s a commercial. That’s been a surprisingly annoying part of the process,” Palansky said. “We’ve had to go through some really weird design constraints.”

Then I thought they must maintain a database of all known commercials and compare the first few frames to it. Nope. Turns out Taiv recognizes commercials pretty much the way we do.

“The vast majority of our algorithm is the same as how people recognize the difference between a hockey game and a commercial,” he explained. “We pull off a bunch of different heuristics and train models on each one. For example, looking at color balance. If you notice in a 30 second block that the color balance has shifted suddenly, it’s probably different content or a different scene. We use lots of those in combination, all in real time.”

The error rate is low, but even so the cost of those errors is very low — a few frames of a commercial shown, for instance. The system quickly recognizes when it’s made a mistake and will revert within a fraction of a second.

Taiv provides the hardware and setup for free, charging the business based on how many signals are being analyzed. “It’s usually a few hundred bucks a month,” said Palansky, which sounds like a lot until you realize that businesses often pay well over a thousand a month for a commercial cable connection. And the benefits seem pretty tangible.

My last consideration was worry that Palansky would end up with the local TV equivalent of a horse’s head in his bed. Old media folks can be ruthless. But it turns out some are actually into it — the system could be used to provide customized last-mile ad delivery if it’s the network operating it.

Taiv has raised a $500K seed round led by Conexus Venture Capital Fund with participation from Y Combinator and Golden Opportunities. You can get in contact with the company for more details or a demo at Taiv.tv.

Comscore partners with Twitch to bring gaming and esports viewership stats to advertisers

Measurement firm Comscore announced this morning a partnership with Amazon-owned game streaming site, Twitch. The deal will see Comscore measuring video streaming activity across Twitch, including gaming and esports, as well as other audience viewing metrics. This will allow advertisers to get a better understanding of video viewing behavior on Twitch, which helps them in targeting their campaigns to reach key demographics.

Specifically, Comscore says it will measure things like minutes spent and content minutes per ad minute, which are important to advertisers. In time, the partnership will expand the integration to other areas — including a launch in additional markets outside the U.S. and Canada, where it’s going live now, as well as to category- and genre-level reporting.

Twitch today remains the No. 1 game streaming site, despite the recent losses of top streamers to rivals like Microsoft Mixer, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube Live. Last year, Twitch competitors wooed away key talent like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, Jeremy “Disguised Toast” Wan, and Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios. In Q1 2020, Corinna Kopf left Twitch as well. As the losses climbed, Twitch saw its hours watched and streamed drop in Q4 2019.

The company is now fighting back. It just signed a deal to retain its top female streamer and 10th most popular overall streamer, Pokimane, earlier this month.

However, despite the talent loss, Twitch’s growth is continuing. The site is expected to top 40 million U.S. viewers next year, according to eMarketer. By 2023, it will reach 47 million. That’s made it too big for the tech giants to ignore, analysts said.

Twitch needs to prove its worth to the advertising community.

The site generated $230 million in ad revenue in 2018, which increased to $300 million last year, according to a report by The Information. But this fell far short of Twitch’s own internal goals, the report claimed. Today, the streaming service still continues to experiment with growth outside of the gaming vertical, with areas like classic TV streams and vlogging, but it has not made non-game streams a core part of the Twitch experience. Amazon also hasn’t capitalized on its acquisition, either to boost its own gaming unit’s titles or integrate Twitch’s live streams with its own video offerings or its Fire TV business.

“Our new partnership with Twitch is more proof of Comscore’s dedication to innovation within audience measurement and across screens,” said Carol Hinnant, Comscore’s Chief Revenue Officer, in a statement. “In a time where gaming and esports are gaining momentum, our partnership will ensure the industry can understand consumption and take advantage of trends in this space.”

In addition, while real-world gaming and esports events have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, there’s potential for game streaming sites like Twitch to increase their viewership — even ahead of forecasts —  in the months ahead. We’ve already seen the coronavirus’s impact on the App Store, as users in China downloaded a record number of games last month during quarantines, for example. As more people globally stay home to stream, game and watch, video steaming sites are likely to grow, as well. 

Comscore is not the first measurement firm to take notice of Twitch. In 2018, Nielsen announced it would measure Twitch esports audiences by way of a panel.

YouTube will now allow creators to monetize videos about coronavirus and COVID-19

YouTube today announced a change in policy regarding the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Previously, YouTube’s advertising guidelines prevented monetization of videos that included more than a passing mention of the coronavirus as part of its “sensitive events” policy. The policy is meant to protect advertisers from being associated with videos about things like mass shootings, terrorist acts, armed conflicts, and global health crises — like the coronavirus. Now, YouTube is changing this policy to allow some creators to monetize videos on the topic, it says.

The creator community was unhappy with YouTube’s decision to demonetize any video featuring discussions of the coronavirus. (Though, to be fair, YouTube creators are generally unhappy when YouTube demonetizes any of their videos.)

But by not allowing creators to profit from videos about the coronavirus or COVID-19, YouTube was putting a damper on informative, newsworthy videos as well as those capitalizing on the human tragedy and people’s fears about the emerging pandemic. The ban on monetization also meant that news organizations covering the topic responsibly wouldn’t be able to generate revenue from their videos, even as coronavirus news became one of their main coverage areas.

Today, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki explained the company’s decision to re-open monetization on videos referencing the health crisis.

She says that the sensitive events policy was designed to apply to short-term events of a significant magnitude, like a natural disaster.

“It’s becoming clear this issue is now an ongoing and important part of everyday conversation,” Wojcicki said, in reference to the coronavirus, “And we want to make sure news organizations and creators can continue producing quality videos in a sustainable way,” she added.

Not all video creators will be eligible to monetize their coronavirus videos, she notes.

Instead, YouTube says ads will be enabled on “a limited number of channels” including those belonging to news partners and creators “who accurately self-certify.” The latter is a more questionable choice, as it opens up monetization to any creator using YouTube’s self-labeling system, not just news organizations or trusted health authorities.

The Self Certification system is one where creators use an online dashboard to tell YouTube whether or not their videos comply with advertiser guidelines ahead of YouTube’s automated review of their content. Over time, YouTube will rely on creators’ input instead of its own systems if the creators have a history of accurate self-certifications. It’s an honor system, essentially, followed by an official check. 

The system doesn’t prevent creators from publishing misinformation in their videos, then labeling the video as advertiser-friendly. In addition, many creators believe that the bogus information they’re sharing is correct and true, so a self-certification system wouldn’t stop them from publishing their misleading and often dangerous advice. Already, YouTube has to work to quickly remove videos like that. This includes videos discouraging people from seeking medical treatment or making dangerous claims — like how garlic or bleach can prevent the viral disease, for example.

To fight misinformation, YouTube is also raising authoritative sources in its search results and recommendations and is showing information panels on which videos are flagged.

Despite these efforts, there continues to be a massive amount of misinformation circulating across social media, including on sites like Facebook and Twitter, in addition to YouTube. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus even referred to the crisis as not just an epidemic, but “an infodemic.” (WHO today has upgraded the COVID-19 viral disease a pandemic, as well.)

In light of the misinformation problem, YouTube’s decision to open up monetization on videos about the coronavirus will be a controversial choice. In doing so, it signals to the creator community that one the most-searched topics on the internet can now be leveraged for views and ad dollars. That invites exploitation.



Daily Crunch: French data watchdog investigates Criteo

Criteo faces a privacy investigation, an e-discovery startup raises $62 million and hackers hack other hackers. Here’s your Daily Crunch for March 10, 2020.

1. Adtech giant Criteo is being investigated by France’s data watchdog

Criteo is under investigation by the French data protection watchdog, the CNIL, following a complaint filed by privacy rights campaign group Privacy International.

Back in November 2018, a few months after GDPR (Europe’s updated data protection framework) came into force, Privacy International filed complaints against a number of companies operating in the space — including Criteo. A subsequent investigation by the rights group found adtech trackers on mental health websites sharing sensitive user data for ad targeting purposes.

2. Everlaw announces $62M Series C to continue modernizing legal discovery

Everlaw is bringing modern data management, visualization and machine learning to e-discovery, the process in which legal entities review large amounts of evidence to build a case. CapitalG (Alphabet’s growth equity investment fund) and Menlo Ventures led the round.

3. Hackers are targeting other hackers by infecting their tools with malware

Cybereason’s Amit Serper found that the attackers in this years-long campaign are taking existing hacking tools and injecting a powerful remote-access trojan. When the tools are opened, the hackers gain full access to the target’s computer.

4. Amazon creates $5M relief fund to aid small businesses in Seattle impacted by coronavirus outbreak

The fund will provide cash grants to local small businesses in need during the novel coronavirus outbreak. The money will be directed toward small businesses with fewer than 50 employees or less than $7 million in annual revenue, and with a physical presence within a few blocks of Regrade and South Lake Union office buildings.

5. Stitch Fix’s sharp decline signals high growth hurdles for tech-enabled startups

Shares of Stitch Fix, a digitally-enabled “styling service,” are off sharply this morning after its earnings failed to excite public market investors. The firm, worth over $29 per share as recently as February, opened today worth just $14.75 per share. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Facebook Stories tests cross-posting to its pet, Instagram

Facebook’s latest colonization of Instagram has begun — the social network is testing the option to cross-post Stories to Instagram, instead of just vice-versa.

7. Sequoia is giving away $21M to a payments startup it recently funded as it walks away from deal

Sequoia Capital has, for the first time in its history, parted ways with a newly funded company (Finix) over a purported conflict of interest and, almost more shockingly, handed back its board seat, its information rights, its shares and its full investment.

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Adtech giant Criteo is being investigated by France’s data watchdog

Adtech giant Criteo is under investigation by the French data protection watchdog, the CNIL, following a complaint filed by privacy rights campaign group Privacy International.

“I can confirm that the CNIL has opened up an investigation into Criteo . We are in the trial phase, so we can’t communicate at this stage,” a CNIL spokesperson told us.

Privacy International has been campaigning for more than a year for European data protection agencies to investigate several adtech players and data brokers involved in programmatic advertising.

Yesterday it said the French regulator has finally opened a probe of Criteo.

“CNIL’s confirmation that they are investigating Criteo is important and we warmly welcome it,” it said in the  statement. “The AdTech ecosystem is based on vast privacy infringements, exploiting people’s data on a daily basis. Whether its through deceptive consent banners or by infesting mental health websites these companies enable a surveillance environment where all you moves online are tracked to profile and target you, with little space to contest.”

We’ve reached out to Criteo for comment.

Back in November 2018, a few months after Europe’s updated data protection framework (GDPR) came into force, Privacy International filed complaints against a number of companies operating in the space — including Criteo.

A subsequent investigation by the rights group last year also found adtech trackers on mental health websites sharing sensitive user data for ad targeting purposes.

Last May Ireland’s Data Protection Commission also opened a formal investigation into Quantcast, following Privacy International’s complaint and a swathe of separate GDPR complaints targeting the real-time bidding (RTB) process involved in programmatic advertising.

The crux of the RTB complaints is that the process is inherently insecure since it entails the leaky broadcasting of people’s personal data with no way for it to be controlled once it’s out there vs GDPR’s requirement for personal data to be processed securely.

In June the UK’s Information Commission’s Office also fired a warning shot at the behavioral ad industry — saying it had “systemic concerns” about the compliance of RTB. Although the regulator has so far failed to take any enforcement action, despite issuing another blog post last December in which it discussed the “industry problem” with lawfulness — preferring instead to encourage adtech to reform itself. (Relevant: Google announcing it will phase out support for third party cookies.)

In its 2018 adtech complaint, Privacy International called for France’s CNIL, the UK’s ICO and Ireland’s DPC to investigate Criteo, Quantcast and a third company called Tapad — arguing their processing of Internet users’ data (including special category personal data) has no lawful basis, neither fulfilling GDPR’s requirements for consent nor legitimate interest.

Privacy International’s complaint argued that additional GDPR principles — including transparency, fairness, purpose limitation, data minimisation, accuracy and integrity and confidently — were also not being fulfilled; and called for further investigation to ascertain compliance with other legal rights and safeguards GDPR gives Europeans over their personal data, including the right to information; access; rights related to automated decision making and profiling; data protection and by design and default; and data protection impact assessments.

In specific complaints against Criteo, Privacy International raised concerns about its Shopper Graph tool, which is used to predict real-time product interest, and which Criteo has touted as having data on nearly three-quarters of the worlds’ shoppers, fed by cross-device online tracking of people’s digital activity which is not limited to cookies and gets supplemented by offline data; and its Dynamic Retargeting tool, which enables the retargeting of tracked shoppers with behaviorally targeted ads via Criteo sharing data with scores of ‘partners’ including publishers and ad exchanges involved in the RTB process to auction online ad slots.

At the time of the original complaint Privacy International said Criteo told it it was relying on consent to track individuals obtained via its advertising (and publisher) partners — who, per GDPR, would need to obtain informed, specific and freely given consent up-front before dropping any tracking cookies (or other tracer technologies) — as well as claiming a legal base known as legitimate interest, saying it believed this was a valid ground so that it could comply with its contractual obligations toward its clients and partners.

However legitimate interests requires a balancing test to be carried out to consider impacts on the individual’s interests, as part of a wider assessment process to determine whether it can be applied.

It’s Privacy International’s contention that neither consent nor legitimate interest is valid in Criteo’s case.

Now the CNIL will look in detail at its data processing to determine whether or not there are GDPR violations. If it finds breaches of the law, the regulation allows for monetary penalties to be issued that can scale as high as 4% of a company’s global turnover. EU data protection agencies can also order changes to how data is processed.

Commenting on the CNIL’s investigation of Criteo, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant — whose research on the privacy implications of RTB predates all the aforementioned complaints — told us: “I am not surprised with the investigation as in Real-Time Bidding transparency and consent were always very problematic and at best non-obvious. I don’t know how retrospective consent could be reconciled.”

“It is rather beyond doubt that a thorough privacy impact assessment (data protection impact assessment) had to be conducted for many aspects of such systems or its uses, so this particular angle of the complaint should not controversial,” Olejnik added.

“My long views on Real-Time Bidding is that it was not a technology created with particular focus on security and privacy. As a transformative technology in the long-term it also contributed to broader issues like the dissemination of harmful content like political disinformation.”

The CNIL probe certainly adds to Criteo’s business woes, with the company reporting declining revenue last year and predicting more to come in 2020. More aggressive moves by browser makers to bake in tracker blocking is clearly having an impact on its core business.

In a recent interview with Digiday Criteo CEO Megan Clarken talked about wanting to broaden the range of services it offers to advertisers and reduce its reliance on its traditional retargeting.

The company has also been investing heavily in artificial intelligence in recent years — ploughing in $23M in 2018 to open an AI lab in Paris.