Rolling updates on Beirut, a city and a tech community devastated

It was only relatively recently, in October 2018, that TechCrunch held Startup Battlefield MENA to unpack startups in the Middle East and North Africa. When TechCrunch went looking for a city in the region to host the event in, it quickly became clear that Beirut was the one for us. Vibrant, full of creative entrepreneurs, and a fantastic startup scene made it a natural TechCrunch choice.

That year Beirut came into its own as tech cluster, with the ongoing emergence of the Beirut Digital District, Antwork and similar initiatives and spaces in the city.

Beirut has created many stand-out startups including Instabug and MYKI, as well as local VC funds including BeryTech Fund and Leap Ventures among others.

Startup Battlefield MENA was a huge success and helped shine a light on that ecosystem.

But it goes without saying that both Lebanon’s financial and political crisis last year, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit Beirut very hard.

We have therefore witnessed the explosion yesterday, which devastated the city and so many lives, with enormous sadness. Our hearts go out to everyone there.

So this post will not be a traditional TechCrunch post about startups and investors.

This will be kept as a rolling list of updates and stories from the tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and investors in a city which is close to TechCrunch’s heart and will be updated as we get information, and put into sections.

Any tech founders or investors in Beirut can email me a statement about how they are doing, if they are well, how their team are doing, if their office was damaged etc. Any stories AT ALL can be sent to mike [AT] mikebutcher.me and I will assemble them for publication here. Put “Beirut” in the subject line.

URGENT NEEDS:
Maps of Shelters, Initiative to Locate Victims https://helplebanon.carrd.co/

FINANCIAL DONATIONS:
You can donate to the Disaster Relief Fund, Lebanese Red Cross and others here.

Lebanese Red Cross donations should be done on desktop (not mobile as their app has some glitches).

Impact Lebanon, a non-profit organization, is a social incubator for driven Lebanese around the world and is raising a crowd-funder here.

Life Lebanon is a relief fund created by the Lebanese in Finance organization (a serious organization formed of expats mostly in UK and US)

DONATE BLOOD:
To donate blood in Lebanon: https://dsclebanon.org/who-we-are | http://www.redcross.org.lb/SubPage.aspx?pageid=317

Vetted and reliable NGOs worth supporting:
Lebanese Red Cross
Offre Joie
Chance Association
Bank to School
Arc En Ciel
Bassma
Sesobel

VOLUNTEERING:
Offre-Joie is an organization that is very respectable and has done good work in reconstruction post-civil war, it’s now seeking volunteers and raising a relief fund here.

MEDIA / INFORMATION:
The961 is one of the leading Lebanese English media/news sites and nd one of the handful of independent and non-politically backed media outlets in the country. Check their Instagram page for pictures/details of missing people by families and friends following the explosion. They are working with a couple of full stack developers from the dev community in Lebanon to develop a platform of some sort where people can submit missing people and their info. It will be set up directly on The961.com as an extension to the news site. It’s also launched a fundraiser for the Lebanese Red Cross through their NGO (legally registered in Canada).

STORIES FROM THE GROUND:

• Entrepreneur Omar Itani: “Yesterday I lost a lot, my car, my house, my phone, one of our shops. The shop was inaugurated less than three months ago, we have poured hundreds of hours of work into the shop and invested thousands and thousands of dollars. Since its opening, the shop has been doing tremendously well and became one of the city’s fashion landmarks. Today the shop is only a memory nothing remains, all vanished in a second.” Read here.

• Business Empower is a Beirut-based technology company that offers e-commerce, data analytics, security and cloud solutions for several local and multi-national companies. The business has sustained significant damage from the event. It was stablished in 2008 by founder Mouhammad Fakhoury. Fakhoury, a Syracuse University alumni and previous Software Engineer at Adobe Systems and Microsoft, who moved to Lebanon to start his own company. Thankfully no one was physically hurt, employees were working remotely due to covid-19 restrictions.

MORE UPDATES WILL FOLLOW….

(Image credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla)(Hussein Malla)

Hear Cloudflare and PlanGrid’s amazing journey from founding to exit at Disrupt 2020

How and when should startup founders think about the “exit”? It’s the perennial question in tech entrepreneurialism, but the how’s and when’s are questions to which there are a multitude of answers. For one thing, new founders often forget that the terms of the exit may not eventually be entirely in their control. There’s the board to think of, the strategic direction of the company, the first-in investors, the last-in. You name it. We’ll be chatting about this at Disrupt 2020.

Exits normally happen in only one of two ways: Either the startup gets acquired for enough money to give the investors a return or it grows big enough to list on the public markets. And it just so happens we have two perfect founders who will be able to unpack their own journeys on those two roads.

When Cloudflare went public last year it certainly wasn’t the end of its 10-year journey, and nor was it PlanGrid’s when it was acquired by Autodesk in 2018.

Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn saw every nook and cranny of the company’s journey towards its IPO, which received a warm reception, even if there were a few bumps along the road leading up to it. What comes after an IPO and how to do you even get there in the first place? Zatlyn will be laying it all out for us.

PlanGrid’s journey to acquisition by Autodesk was equally fascinating, and Tracy Young – who, as CEO and co-founder, shepherded the company to an $875 Million exit – will be able to give us an insight into what it’s like to dance with a potential acquirer, go through that (often fraught) process, and come out the other side.

We’re excited to host this conversation at Disrupt 2020 and expect it to fill up quickly. Grab your pass before this Friday to save up to $300 on this session and more.

US tech needs a pivot to survive

Last month, American tech companies were dealt two of the most consequential legal decisions they have ever faced. Both of these decisions came from thousands of miles away, in Europe. While companies are spending time and money scrambling to understand how to comply with a single decision, they shouldn’t miss the broader ramification: Europe has different operating principles from the U.S., and is no longer passively accepting American rules of engagement on tech.

In the first decision, Apple objected to and was spared a $15 billion tax bill the EU said was due to Ireland, while the European Commission’s most vocal anti-tech crusader Margrethe Vestager was dealt a stinging defeat. In the second, and much more far-reaching decision, Europe’s courts struck a blow at a central tenet of American tech’s business model: data storage and flows.

American companies have spent decades bundling stores of user data and convincing investors of its worth as an asset. In Schrems, Europe’s highest court ruled that masses of free-flowing user data is, instead, an enormous liability, and sows doubt about the future of the main method that companies use to transfer data across the Atlantic.

On the surface, this decision appears to be about data protection. But there is a choppier undertow of sentiment swirling in legislative and regulatory circles across Europe. Namely that American companies have amassed significant fortunes from Europeans and their data, and governments want their share of the revenue.

What’s more, the fact that European courts handed victory to an individual citizen while also handing defeat to one of the commission’s senior leaders shows European institutions are even more interested in protecting individual rights than they are in propping up commission positions. This particular dynamic bodes poorly for the lobbying and influence strategies that many American companies have pursued in their European expansion.

After the Schrems ruling, companies will scramble to build legal teams and data centers that can comply with the court’s decision. They will spend large sums of money on pre-built solutions or cloud providers that can deliver a quick and seamless transition to the new legal reality. What companies should be doing, however, is building a comprehensive understanding of the political, judicial and social realities of the European countries where they do business — because this is just the tip of the iceberg.

American companies need to show Europeans — regularly and seriously — that they do not take their business for granted.

Europe is an afterthought no more

For many years, American tech companies have treated Europe as a market that required minimal, if any, meaningful adaptations for success. If an early-stage company wanted to gain market share in Germany, it would translate its website, add a notice about cookies and find a convenient way to transact in euros. Larger companies wouldn’t add many more layers of complexity to this strategy; perhaps it would establish a local sales office with a European from HQ, hire a German with experience in U.S. companies or sign a local partnership that could help it distribute or deliver its product. Europe, for many small and medium-sized tech firms, was little more than a bigger Canada in a tougher time zone.

Only the largest companies would go to the effort of setting up public policy offices in Brussels, or meaningfully try to understand the noncommercial issues that could affect their license to operate in Europe. The Schrems ruling shows how this strategy isn’t feasible anymore.

American tech must invest in understanding European political realities the same way they do in emerging markets like India, Russia or China, where U.S. tech companies go to great lengths to adapt products to local laws or pull out where they cannot comply. Europe is not just the European Commission, but rather 27 different countries that vote and act on different interests at home and in Brussels.

Governments in Beijing or Moscow refused to accept a reality of U.S. companies setting conditions for them from the outset. After underestimating Europe for years, American companies now need to dedicate headspace to considering how business is materially affected by Europe’s different views on data protection, commerce, taxation and other issues.

This is not to say that American and European values on the internet differ as dramatically as they do with China’s values, for instance. But Europe, from national governments to the EU and to courts, is making it clear that it will not accept a reality where U.S. companies assume that they have license to operate the same way they do at home. Where U.S. companies expect light taxation, European governments expect revenue for economic activity. Where U.S. companies expect a clear line between state and federal legislation, Europe offers a messy patchwork of national and international regulation. Where U.S. companies expect that their popularity alone is proof that consumers consent to looser privacy or data protection, Europe reminds them that (across the pond) the state has the last word on the matter.

Many American tech companies understand their commercial risks inside and out but are not prepared for managing the risks that are out of their control. From reputation risk to regulatory risk, they can no longer treat Europe as a like-for-like market with the U.S., and the winners will be those companies that can navigate the legal and political changes afoot. Having a Brussels strategy isn’t enough. Instead American companies will need to build deeper influence in the member states where they operate. Specifically, they will need to communicate their side of the argument early and often to a wider range of potential allies, from local and national governments in markets where they operate, to civil society activists like Max Schrems .

The world’s offline differences are obvious, and the time when we could pretend that the internet erased them rather than magnified them is quickly ending.

Google-Fitbit deal to be scrutinized in Europe over data competition concerns

In a set-back for Google’s plan to acquire health wearable company Fitbit, the European Commission has announced it’s opening an investigation to dig into a range of competition concerns being attached to the proposal from multiple quarters.

This means the deal is on ice for a period of time that could last until early December.

The Commission said it has 90 working days to take a decision on the acquisition — so until December 9, 2020.

Commenting on opening an “in-depth investigation” in a statement, Commission EVP Margrethe Vestager — who heads up both competition policy and digital strategy for the bloc — said: “The use of wearable devices by European consumers is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This will go hand in hand with an exponential growth of data generated through these devices. This data provides key insights about the life and the health situation of the users of these devices.Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

Google has responded to the EU brake on its ambitions with a blog post in which its devices & services chief seeks to defend the deal, arguing it will spur innovation and lead to increased competition.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Google VP Rick Osterloh further claims.

The tech giant announced its desire to slip into Fitbit’s data-sets back in November, when it announced a plan to shell out $2.1BN in an all-cash deal to pick up the wearable maker.

Fast forward a few months and CEO Sundar Pichai is being taken to task by lawmakers on home turf for stuff like ‘helping destroy anonymity on the Internet‘. Last year’s already rowdy antitrust drum beat around big tech has become a full on rock festival so the mood music around tech acquisitions might finally be shifting.

Since news of Google’s plan to grab Fitbit dropped concerns about the deal have been raised all over Europe — with consumer groups, privacy regulators and competition and tech policy wonks all sounding the alarm at the prospect of letting the adtech giant gobble a device maker and help itself to a bunch of sensitive consumer health data in the process.

Digital privacy rights group, Privacy International — one of the not-for-profits that’s been urging regulators not to rubberstamp the deal — argues the acquisition would not only squeeze competition in the nascent digital health market, and also for wearables, but also reduce “what little pressure there currently is on Google to compete in relation to privacy options available to consumers (both existing and future Fitbit users), leading to even less competition on privacy standards and thereby enabling the further degradation of consumers’ privacy protections”, as it puts it.

So much noise is being made that Google has already played the ‘we promise not to…’ card that’s a favorite of data-mining tech giants. (Typically followed, a few years later, with a ‘we got ya sucker’ joker — as they go ahead and do the thing they totally said they wouldn’t.)

To wit: From the get-go Fitbit has claimed users’ “health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads”. Just like WhatsApp said nothing would change when Facebook bought them. (Er.)

Last month Reuters revisited the concession, in an “exclusive” report that cited “people familiar with the matter” who apparently told it the deal could be waved through if Google pledged not to use Fitbit data for ads.

It’s not clear where the leak underpinning its news report came from but Reuters also ran with a quote from a Google spokeswoman — who further claimed: “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

In the event, Google’s headline-grabbing promises to behave itself with Fitbit data have not prevented EU regulators from wading in for a closer look at competition concerns — which is exactly as it should be.

In truth, given the level of concern now being raised about tech giants’ market power and adtech giant Google specifically grabbing a treasure trove of consumer health data, a comprehensive probe is the very least regulators should be doing.

If digital policy history has shown anything over the past decade and where data is concerned it’s that the devil is always in the fine print detail. Moreover the fast pace of digital markets can mean a competitive threat may only be a micro pivot away from materializing. Theories of harm clearly need radically updating to take account of data-mining technosocial platform giants. And the Commission knows that — which is why it’s consulting on giving itself more powers to tackling tipping in digital markets. But it also needs to flex and exercise the powers it currently has. Such as opening a proper investigation — rather than gaily waving tech giant deals through.

Antitrust may now be flavor of the month where tech giants are concerned — with US lawmakers all but declaring war on digital robber barons at last month’s big subcommittee showdown in Congress. But it’s also worth noting EU competition regulators — for all their heavily publicized talk of properly regulating the digital sphere — have yet to block a single digital tech merger.

And it remains to be seen whether that record will change by December.

“The Commission is concerned that the proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalisation of the ads it serves and displays,” it writes in a press release today.

Following a preliminary assessment process of the deal, EU regulators said they have concerns about [emphasis theirs]:

  • “the impact of the transaction on the supply of online search and display advertising services (the sale of advertising space on, respectively, the result page of an internet search engine or other internet pages)”
  • and on “the supply of ‘ad tech’ services (analytics and digital tools used to facilitate the programmatic sale and purchase of digital advertising)”

“By acquiring Fitbit, Google would acquire (i) the database maintained by Fitbit about its users’ health and fitness; and (ii) the technology to develop a database similar to Fitbit’s one,” the Commission further notes.

“The data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appears, at this stage of the Commission’s review of the transaction, to be an important advantage in the online advertising markets. By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalisation of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services. Thus, the transaction would raise barriers to entry and expansion for Google’s competitors for these services, to the ultimate detriment of advertisers and publishers that would face higher prices and have less choice.”

The Commission views Google as dominant in the supply of online search advertising services in almost all EEA (European Economic Area) countries; as well as holding “a strong market position” in the supply of online advertising display services in a large number of EEA countries (especially off-social network display ads), and “a strong market position” in the supply of adtech services in the EEA.

All of which will inform its considerations as it looks at whether Google will gain an unfair competitive advantage by assimilating Fitbit data. (Vestager has also issued a number of antitrust enforcements against the tech giant in recent years, against Android, AdSense and Google Shopping.)

The regulator has also said it will further look at:

  • the “effects of the combination of Fitbit’s and Google’s databases and capabilities in the digital healthcare sector, which is still at a nascent stage in Europe”
  • “whether Google would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of rivals’ wearables with Google’s Android operating system for smartphones once it owns Fitbit”

The tech giant has already offered EU regulators one specific concession in the hopes of getting the Fitbit buy green lit — with the Commission noting that it submitted commitments aimed at addressing concerns last month.

Google suggested creating a data silo to hold data collected via Fitbit’s wearable devices — and where it said it would be kept separate from any other dataset within Google (including claiming it would be restricted for ad purposes). However the Commission expresses scepticism about Google’s offer, writing that it “considers that the data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

“Among others, this is because the data silo remedy did not cover all the data that Google would access as a result of the transaction and would be valuable for advertising purposes,” it added.

Google makes reference to this data silo in its blog post, claiming: “This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads. We recently offered to make a legally binding commitment to the European Commission regarding our use of Fitbit data. As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data. And we’ll continue to support wide connectivity and interoperability across our and other companies’ products.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with the European Commission on an approach that addresses consumers’ expectations of their wearable devices. We’re confident that by working closely with Fitbit’s team of experts, and bringing together our experience in AI, software and hardware, we can build compelling devices for people around the world,” it adds.

Amazon’s 16% bite of Deliveroo finally clears UK competition probe

It’s official: Days after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was peppered with awkward questions by US lawmakers concerned about the market power of his ecommerce empire, the UK’s competition regulator has confirmed it’s happy for the tech giant to take a 16% bite out of local on-demand food delivery app, Deliveroo.

The CMA had been investigating the planned stake for some 15 months, completing phase one of its scrutiny in December. At the time it decided it had enough concerns to move to a phase 2 probe — chewing over whether or not the stake might discourage Amazon from re-entering the online restaurant food market and “further developing its presence within the online convenience grocery delivery market in the UK”, as it put it.

Soon after the regulator started in on this work COVID-19 struck Europe — impacting investigation as it had a marked impact on Deliveroo’s business. Initially the impact of the coronavirus looked negative, with Deliveroo claiming it would have gone out of business without Amazon’s stake. The CMA concurred with this analysis, treating it as a “failing firm” and reasoning that Deliveroo’s exit from the market would have been worse for competition — thereby provisionally clearing the Amazon stake in April.

Then again in June the regulator provisionally cleared the deal — although it now no longer considered Deliveroo failing, being as, from April 2020, it found a sharper than expected recovery in the restaurant food delivery market, as well as a shift in the restaurant ‘mix’ (“towards smaller, independent restaurants and away from large fast food chains”) — both of which resulted in money being poured into Deliveroo’s coffers. Yet then — with the startup’s finances experiencing “rapid and significant turnaround” — the regulator felt it necessary to complete a “substantive assessment” to of the risks to competition.

Now it’s finally concluded that Amazon’s 16% stake does not cross the competitive risk threshold. So Bezos can crack out the bubble — assuming he knows what the heck Deliveroo is of course.

The CMA said its decision to clear the deal on competition grounds is “the culmination of extensive analysis of internal documents from Amazon and Deliveroo, a survey of more than 3,000 consumers, and extensive submissions from interested third parties”.

It said the assessment looked at how a 16% shareholding by Amazon would “affect its incentives to compete independently with Deliveroo in both restaurant delivery and online convenience grocery delivery in the coming years”.

“The CMA ultimately found that this level of investment will not substantially lessen competition in either market. However, if Amazon were to acquire a greater level of control over Deliveroo — through, for example, acquiring a controlling interest in the company — this could trigger a further investigation by the CMA,” it added.

Commenting further in a statement, Stuart McIntosh, inquiry chair, said: “Taking account of the higher legal standard that applies at Phase 2, the Group has concluded that the transaction will not result in a substantial lessening of competition in either restaurant delivery or convenience grocery delivery.”

McIntosh was also at pains to emphasize that the decision reflects the scale of the investment and Amazon ‘s “incentives to compete in both markets” — reiterating the warning that should Amazon try to increase its share of Deliveroo a fresh investigation may be triggered. 

The announcement that Amazon was leading a $575 million Series G investment in the UK food delivery app business dates back to May 2019.

The move signalled a second act for the ecommerce behemoth in the UK food delivery market, after it launched an on-demand food delivery offer with London restaurants for Prime members back in 2016. However it went on to shutter the effort a couple of years later — having faced fierce competition from the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

Responding to the CMA’s clearance of the Amazon stake, Deliveroo emphasized that “none of the five ‘Theories of Harm’ on which the CMA based its investigation have been substantiated”.

A company spokesperson also emailed this statement:

We are delighted that the CMA has concluded its 15 month investigation and that the Amazon minority investment can now go ahead.

This is fantastic news for UK customers and restaurants, and for the British economy. British born Deliveroo will use the investment to increase choice and value for customers, support for restaurants and will be able to offer more riders the flexible work they value as the company expands.

Deliveroo is excited that Amazon, the most customer-obsessed and innovative company in the world, has shown such a huge vote of confidence in Deliveroo and chosen to invest in the company’s future.

The company offered some updated business metrics, saying there are now 100,000 restaurants on its platform globally, with 30,000 joining this year alone — which it claimed points to “the extent to which the Covid crisis has seen restaurants turn to delivery as a vital source of revenue”.

“75,000 of the restaurants who work with Deliveroo globally are small, independent restaurants who have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” it added.

Yotpo raises $75M for its e-commerce marketing cloud

“Marketing Cloud” has become an increasingly popular concept in the world of marketing technology — used by the likes of Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle and others to describe their digital toolsets for organizations to identify and connect with customers. Now, a startup that is building its own take on the idea aimed specifically at e-commerce companies is announcing some funding after seeing a surge of business in the last few months.

Yotpo, which provides a suite of tool to help direct-to-comsumer and other e-commerce players build better relationships with customers, is today announcing that it has raised $75 million in funding, money it will use to continue growing its suite of products, as well as to acquire more customers and build out more integration partnerships.

The Series E included a number of Yotpo’s existing investors, namely Bessemer Venture Partners, Access industries (the owner of Warner Music Group, among a number of other holdings) and Vertex Ventures (a subsidiary of Temasek), new investor Hanaco (which focuses on Israeli startups — Yotpo is co-headquartered in Tel Aviv and New York), and other unnamed investors.

It brings the total raised by the startup to $176 million, and while it’s not disclosing valuation, its CEO Tomer Tagrin — who co-founded the company with COO Omri Cohen — describes it as “nearly a unicorn.”

“I like to call what we’re building a flamingo, which is also a rare and beautiful animal but also a real thing, and we are a proper business,” he said in an interview, adding that Yotpo is on target for ARR next year to be $100 million.

The company had its start as an app in Shopify’s App Store, providing tools to Shopify customers to help with customer engagement by way of user-generated content, and while it has outgrown that single relationship — it now has some 500 additional strategic partners, including Salesforce, Adobe, BigCommerce and others — Yotpo’s CEO still likes to describe his company in Shopify-ish terms.

“Just as Shopify manages your business, we manage your customers end to end,” Tagrin said. He said that while it’s great to see the bigger trend of consolidation around marketing clouds, it’s not a one-size-fits-all problem. He believes Yotpo’s e-commerce-specific approach to that stands apart from the pack because it addresses issues unique to D2C and other e-commerce companies.

Yotpo’s services today include SMS and visual marketing, loyalty and referral services, and reviews and ratings, which are used by a range of e-commerce companies, spanning from newer direct-to-consumer brands like Third Love and Away, to more established names like Patagonia and 1800flowers. Some of these have been built in-house, and some by way of acquisition — most recently, SMSBump, in January. The plan is to use some of the funding also to continue that acquisition strategy.

“Since our first investment more than three years ago, Tomer and Omri have executed flawlessly, expanding the product suite, serving a wider range of customers, and continually hiring strong talent across the organization,” says Adam Fisher, a Partner at BVP, in a statement. “Yotpo is singularly focused on helping direct-to-consumer eCommerce brands solve the dual challenge of engaging consumers and increasing revenue, and with their multi-product strategy and innovative edge, they are uniquely positioned to dominate the eCommerce industry for years to come.”

Yotpo is built as a freemium platform, with some 9,000 customers paying for services, and a further 280,000 customers on its free usage tier. Customer count grew by 250% in the last year, Tagrin said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a well-documented impact on internet use, and specifically e-commerce, as people turned to digital channels in record numbers to procure things while complying with shelter-in-place orders, or trying to increase social distancing to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

E-commerce has been on the rise for years, but the acceleration of that trend has been drastic since February, with revenue and spend both regularly exceeding baseline figures over the last several months, according to research from digital marketing agency Common Thread Collective.

That, in turn, had a big impact on companies that help enable those e-commerce enterprises operate in more direct and personable ways. Yotpo was a direct beneficiary: it said it had a surge of sign-ups of new customers, many taking paid services, working out to a 170% year-on-year ARR and lower customer churn.

The bigger picture, of course, is not completely rosy, with thousands of layoffs across the whole tech service, and a huge number of brick-and-mortar business closures. Those economic indicators could ultimately also have a knock-on effect not just in more business moving online, but also a slowdown in spending overall.

That will inevitably have an impact on startups like Yotpo, too, which is definitely on a rise now but will continue to think longer term about the impact and how it can continue to diversify its products to meet a wider set of customer use cases.

For example, today, the company addresses customer care needs by way of integrations with companies like Zendesk, but longer term it might consider how it can bring in services like this to continue to build out the touchpoints between D2C brands and their customers, and specifically running those through a bigger picture of the customer as profiled on Yotpo’s platform.

This is a big part of our product in our meetings and debates,” Tagrin said about product expansions.

“I do think any celebration of growth and funding comes to me with something else: we need to be internalising more what is going on,” he said. “The world is not back to normal and we shouldn’t act like it is.”

UK commits to redesign visa streaming algorithm after challenge to ‘racist’ tool

The UK government is suspending the use of an algorithm used to stream visa applications after concerns were raised the technology bakes in unconscious bias and racism.

The tool had been the target of a legal challenge. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and campaigning law firm Foxglove had asked a court to declare the visa application streaming algorithm unlawful and order a halt to its use, pending a judicial review.

The legal action had not run its full course but appears to have forced the Home Office’s hand as it has committed to a redesign of the system.

A Home Office spokesperson confirmed to us that from August 7 the algorithm’s use will be suspended, sending us this statement via email: “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.”

Although the government has not accepted the allegations of bias, writing in a letter to the law firm: “The fact of the redesign does not mean that the [Secretary of State] accepts the allegations in your claim form [i.e. around unconscious bias and the use of nationality as a criteria in the streaming process].”

The Home Office letter also claims the department had already moved away from use of the streaming tool “in many application types”. But it adds that it will approach the redesign “with an open mind in considering the concerns you have raised”.

The redesign is slated to be completed by the autumn, and the Home Office says an interim process will be put in place in the meanwhile, excluding the use of nationality as a sorting criteria.

The JCWI has claimed a win against what it describes as a “shadowy, computer-driven” people sifting system — writing on its website: “Today’s win represents the UK’s first successful court challenge to an algorithmic decision system. We had asked the Court to declare the streaming algorithm unlawful, and to order a halt to its use to assess visa applications, pending a review. The Home Office’s decision effectively concedes the claim.”

The department did not respond to a number of questions we put to it regarding the algorithm and its design processes — including whether or not it sought legal advice ahead of implementing the technology in order to determine whether it complied with the UK’s Equality Act.

“We do not accept the allegations Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants made in their Judicial Review claim and whilst litigation is still on-going it would not be appropriate for the Department to comment any further,” the Home Office statement added.

The JCWI’s complaint centered on the use, since 2015, of an algorithm with a “traffic-light system” to grade every entry visa application to the UK.

“The tool, which the Home Office described as a digital ‘streaming tool’, assigns a Red, Amber or Green risk rating to applicants. Once assigned by the algorithm, this rating plays a major role in determining the outcome of the visa application,” it writes, dubbing the technology “racist” and discriminatory by design, given its treatment of certain nationalities.

“The visa algorithm discriminated on the basis of nationality — by design. Applications made by people holding ‘suspect’ nationalities received a higher risk score. Their applications received intensive scrutiny by Home Office officials, were approached with more scepticism, took longer to determine, and were much more likely to be refused.

“We argued this was racial discrimination and breached the Equality Act 2010,” it adds. “The streaming tool was opaque. Aside from admitting the existence of a secret list of suspect nationalities, the Home Office refused to provide meaningful information about the algorithm. It remains unclear what other factors were used to grade applications.”

Since 2012 the Home Office has openly operated an immigration policy known as the ‘hostile environment’ — applying administrative and legislative processes that are intended to make it as hard as possible for people to stay in the UK.

The policy has led to a number of human rights scandals. (We also covered the impact on the local tech sector by telling the story of one UK startup’s visa nightmare last year.) So applying automation atop an already highly problematic policy does look like a formula for being taken to court.

The JCWI’s concern around the streaming tool was exactly that it was being used to automate the racism and discrimination many argue underpin the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. In other words, if the policy itself is racist any algorithm is going to pick up and reflect that.

“The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal, found that it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates,” said Chai Patel, legal policy director of the JCWI, in a statement. “This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor for such bias and to root it out.”

“We’re delighted the Home Office has seen sense and scrapped the streaming tool. Racist feedback loops meant that what should have been a fair migration process was, in practice, just ‘speedy boarding for white people.’ What we need is democracy, not government by algorithm,” added Cori Crider, founder and director of Foxglove. “Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask experts and the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and how historic biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots.”

In its letter to Foxglove, the government has committed to undertaking Equality Impact Assessments and Data Protection Impact Assessments for the interim process it will switch to from August 7 — when it writes that it will use “person-centric attributes (such as evidence of previous travel”, to help sift some visa applications, further committing that “nationality will not be used”.

Some types of applications will be removed from the sifting process altogether, during this period.

“The intent is that the redesign will be completed as quickly as possible and at the latest by October 30, 2020,” it adds.

Asked for thoughts on what a legally acceptable visa streaming algorithm might look like, Internet law expert Lilian Edwards told TechCrunch: “It’s a tough one… I am not enough of an immigration lawyer to know if the original criteria applied re suspect nationalities would have been illegal by judicial review standard anyway even if not implemented in a sorting algorithm. If yes then clearly a next generation algorithm should aspire only to discriminate on legally acceptable grounds.

“The problem as we all know is that machine learning can reconstruct illegal criteria — though there are now well known techniques for evading that.”

“You could say the algorithmic system did us a favour by confronting illegal criteria being used which could have remained buried at individual immigration officer informal level. And indeed one argument for such systems used to be ‘consistency and non-arbitrary’ nature. It’s a tough one,” she added.

Earlier this year the Dutch government was ordered to halt use of an algorithmic risk scoring system for predicting the likelihood social security claimants would commit benefits or tax fraud — after a local court found it breached human rights law.

In another interesting case, a group of UK Uber drives are challenging the legality of the gig platform’s algorithmic management of them under Europe’s data protection framework — which bakes in data access rights, including provisions attached to legally significant automated decisions.

Twitter warns investors of possible fine from FTC consent order probe

Twitter has disclosed it’s facing a potential fine of more than a hundred million dollars as a result of a probe by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which believes the company violated a 2011 consent order by using data provided by users for a security purpose to target them with ads.

In an SEC filing, reported on earlier by the New York Times, Twitter revealed it received the draft complaint from the FTC late last month. The activity the regulator is complaining about is alleged to have taken place between 2013 and 2019.

Last October the social media firm publicly disclosed it had used phone numbers and email addresses provided by users to set up two-factor authentication to bolster the security of their accounts in order to serve targeted ads — blaming the SNAFU on a tailored audiences program, which allows companies to target ads against their own marketing lists.

Twitter found that when advertisers uploaded their own marketing lists (of emails and/or phone numbers) it matched users to data they had submitted purely to set up two-factor authentication on their Twitter account.

“The allegations relate to the Company’s use of phone number and/or email address data provided for safety and security purposes for targeted advertising during periods between 2013 and 2019,” Twitter writes in the SEC filing. “The Company estimates that the range of probable loss in this matter is $150.0 million to $250.0 million and has recorded an accrual of $150.0 million.”

“The matter remains unresolved, and there can be no assurance as to the timing or the terms of any final outcome,” it adds.

We’ve reached out to Twitter with questions.

The company has had a torrid few weeks on the security front, suffering a major security incident last month after hackers gained access to its internal account management tools, enabling them to access accounts of scores of verified Twitter users, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Joe Biden, and use them to send cryptocurrency scam tweets. Police have since charged three people with the hack, including a 17-year-old Florida teen.

In June Twitter also disclosed a security lapse may have exposed some business customers’ information. While it was forced to report another crop of security incidents last year — including after a researcher identifying a bug that allowed him to discover phone numbers associated with millions of Twitter accounts.

Twitter also admitted it gave account location data to one of its partners, even if the user had opted-out of having their data shared; and inadvertently gave its ad partners more data than it should have.

Additionally, the company is now at the front of a long queue of tech giants pending enforcement in Europe, related to major GDPR complaints — where regional fines for data violations can scale to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover. Twitter’s lead data protection regulator, Ireland’s DPC, submitted a draft decision related to a probe of one of its security breaches to the bloc’s other data agencies in May — with a final decision slated as likely this summer.

The decision relates to an investigation the regulator instigated following yet another major security fail by Twitter in 2018 — when it revealed a bug had resulted in some passwords being stored in plain text.

As we reported at the time it’s pretty unusual for a company of such size to make such a basic security mistake. But Twitter has a very long history of failing to protect users’ data — with additional hacking incidents all the way back in 2009 leading to the 2011 FTC consent order.

Under the terms of that settlement Twitter was barred for 20 years from misleading consumers about the safety of their data in order to resolve FTC charges that it had “deceived consumers and put their privacy at risk by failing to safeguard their personal information”.

It also agreed to establish and maintain “a comprehensive information security program”, with independent auditor assessments taking place every other year for 10 years.

Given the terms of that order a fine does indeed look inevitable. However the wider failing here is that of US regulators — which, for over a decade, have failed to grapple with the exploitative, surveillance-based business models that have led to breaches and security lapses by a number of data-mining adtech giants, not just Twitter.

The Great TechCrunch Survey of Europe’s VCs — Be featured in our survey

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe.


Over the next few weeks, we will be ‘zeroing-in’ on Europe’s major cities, from A-Z, Amsterdam to Zurich, and many points in-between.

It’s part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors. 

Our survey will capture how each European startup is fairing, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the Coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how you things will evolve from here. 

Our survey will only be about investors, and will only be sent to investors.

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you want to add, the better.

The deadline for entries is the end of next week, August 7th and you can fill it out here.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be published in the final surveys.

What kinds of things do we want to know?

Questions will include trends are you most excited? What startup do you wish someone would create?

Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?

 How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? 

The survey will cover almost every European country, on the continent of Europe (not just EU members, btw), so just look for your country in the menu on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

Telegram hits out at Apple’s app store ‘tax’ in latest EU antitrust complaint

Apple has another antitrust charge on its plate. Messaging app Telegram has joined Spotify in filing a formal complaint against the iOS App Store in Europe — adding its voice to a growing number of developers willing to publicly rail against what they decry as Apple’s app “tax”.

A spokesperson for Telegram confirmed the complaint to TechCrunch, pointing us to this public Telegram post where founder, Pavel Durov, sets out seven reasons why he thinks iPhone users should be concerned about the company’s behavior.

These range from the contention that Apple’s 30% fee on app developers leads to higher prices for iPhone users; to censorship concerns, given Apple controls what’s allowed (and not allowed) on its store; to criticism of delays to app updates that flow from Apple’s app review process; to the claim that the app store structure is inherently hostile to user privacy, given that Apple gets full visibility of which apps users are downloading and engaging with.

This week Durov also published a blog post in which he takes aim at a number of “myths” he says Apple uses to try to justify the 30% app fee — such as a claim that iOS faces plenty of competition for developers; or that developers can choose not to develop for iOS and instead only publish apps for Android.

“Try to imagine Telegram or TikTok as Android -only apps and you will quickly understand why avoiding Apple is impossible,” he writes. “You can’t just exclude iPhone users. As for the iPhone users, the costs for consumers to switch from an iPhone to an Android is so high that it qualifies as a monopolistic lock-in” — citing a study done by Yale University to bolster that claim.

“Now that anti-monopoly investigations against Apple have started in the EU and the US, I expect Apple to double down on spreading such myths,” Durov adds. “We shouldn’t sit idly and let Apple’s lobbyists and PR agents do their thing. At the end of the day, it is up to us – consumers and creators – to defend our rights and to stop monopolists from stealing our money. They may think they have tricked us into a deadlock, because we’ve already bought a critical mass of their devices and created a critical mass of apps for them. But we shouldn’t be giving them a free ride any longer.”

The European Commission declined to comment on Telegram’s complaint.

We also reached out to Apple for comment but the company also declined to provide an on the record statement regarding Telegram’s complaint. A spokesperson did point to a piece of analyst research, from earlier this year, which found iOS had a marketshare of 15% vs Android’s 85%. They also flagged a separate analyst report, which looks at commission rates charged by app and digital content stores and marketplaces — suggesting this shows that rates charged for similar types of stores are generally also around 30%.

So the company’s overarching argument against ‘app tax’ complaints continues to be the claim that: A) Apple can’t have monopoly power, given its relatively small mobile OS marketshare (vs Android); and B) the App Store fee is fair because it’s basically the same as everyone else charges. (On the latter point it’s true Google also takes a 30% cut via the Play Store. However the Android platform lets users sideload apps; whereas, on iOS, users would have to jailbreak their device to get the same level of freedom to freely install apps of their choice).

Apple’s arguments are also now being actively looked into by EU regulators. Last month the Competition Commission announced it’s investigating Apple’s iOS store (and Apple Pay) — saying a preliminary probe of the store had identified concerns related to conditions and restrictions applied by the tech giant.

Specifically vis-a-vis the App Store, the Commission said it’s looking at Apple’s mandatory requirement that developers use its proprietary in-app purchase system, and at restrictions it applies on the ability of developers to inform iPhone and iPad users of alternative cheaper purchasing possibilities outside of the App Store.

The investigation by EU regulators is just the latest in a series of major big tech antitrust probes under the bloc’s current competition chief, Margrethe Vestager — who has also been digging into Amazon and Facebook business practices in recent years, as well as hitting Google with a series of record-breaking antitrust fines.

Over in the US, meanwhile, lawmakers are also actively grappling with competition concerns that have long been attached to a number of tech giants — and are being exacerbated by the pandemic concentrating platform power. Apple is one of the tech giants of concern, though not, seemingly, top of US lawmakers’ target list.

Yesterday, a hearing of the House Antitrust Subcommittee took testimony from four big tech CEOs: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai — with Pichai, Bezos and Zuckerberg getting the most questions from lawmakers.

Cook did face a number of questions around how the company operates the App Store, though — including about the commission it charges developers and a specific line of enquiry on why it had removed rival screen time apps. Asked whether Apple could ever raise its 30% take on app subscriptions Cook sought to sidestep the question, saying the fee had remained unchanged since the launch of the store.

He then followed up by arguing Apple faces huge competition for developers — citing alternatives platforms such as Windows and Xbox as also fiercely vying for developers, and likening the competition to attract developers as akin to “a street fight for market share”.

The contention from complainants like Spotify and Telegram is that Cook’s claim of Apple facing fierce competition for developers’ wares, from its position as the world’s second largest smartphone OS by marketshare, does not stand up to scrutiny. But it’ll be up to EU regulators to determine how to define the market for smartphone apps and, flowing from that, whether they identify harm or not.