UAE aims to convert oil wealth into tech prowess

The Middle East has long been thought of as an oil region, but the United Arab Emirates aims to change this with an intense focus on growing the country’s technology and startup scene.

For the first half of 2022, the Middle East region brought in $1.73 billion in investments across 354 deals, up from more than $1.2 billion in the first half of 2021 — a 64% year over year growth. The UAE took in 46% of the total venture capital received in the Middle East and Africa in 2021, according to the country’s Ministry of Economy.

H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama

H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, United Arab Emirates minister of artificial intelligence. Image Credits: United Arab Emirates

The UAE began focusing on its tech and startup hub goal in 2016 by establishing the Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park to incubate companies in a variety of industries, including water management, renewable energy, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture.

TechCrunch highlighted some of the more recent technology activity coming out of the United Arab Emirates, including that the country was going to pour $800 million into a fund to invest in space initiatives, that the region is now home to the “world’s largest vertical farm” and a global  investment in local proptech startup Huspy.

In 2017, the UAE created an artificial intelligence ministry position, which it filled with H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, who had previously worked in the banking and telecommunications sectors.

H.E. Al Olama recently spoke with me about the burgeoning Emerati startup and venture capital ecosystem, and the country’s approaches to attracting U.S. VC investment. What follows are highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.

TechCrunch: Is the UAE’s venture capital presence fairly new?

H.E. Al Olama: If you look at the geography, you will see that the UAE attracts over 50% of all venture capital investments of this whole region. That is interesting, but when you actually look at the size of the population, it becomes a lot more interesting because you’re talking about a very high concentration of very high-quality talent, as well as an ecosystem that allows for thriving startups and startups that don’t just get started but actually go through different scale up phases.

In terms of venture capital and investment into the region, I saw it was over a billion dollars in the last year. Do you see that increasing this year or on par with last year?

For the first half of this year, the investments have been much more than we expected. Of all the investments in the first six months, there has been $1.73 billion invested in the Middle East, out of which 37.2% were invested in the UAE. So it is actually quite substantial. If we look at the comparison from 2022 to 2021, January was 2.5 times as was February, and March was 1.5 times, April was 1.5 times, May was 1.4 times and June was 1.2 times. That is for the whole region. What you can see from that is the interest that the global investors are having in the region. And, the theory that the UAE is still getting the biggest portion of that compared to other countries in the region that have a bigger population or seemingly a bigger market size, shows that the snowball started rolling a few years back with the startups that we’ve had and it’s actually just getting bigger. I think we’re just getting started.

How have you been able to attract tech companies to the UAE?

Being tax free is definitely one incentive, but the UAE today is also a financial hub for our region and one of the top financial hubs globally. There’s a lot of capital here ready to be deployed. One great advantage is a lot of investors feel more comfortable investing in a company situated in the UAE because of the transparency of the court system. Government legislations are friendly to the private sector. It’s an environment that allows people to be able to thrive because they do not feel marginalized or disadvantaged because they have a certain ethnicity or sex or nationality. It is known to be able to be a place where anyone from anywhere in the world can actually succeed. In addition, the infrastructure is also quite advanced in terms of the quality of the roads and penetration of smartphones — we have the highest smartphone penetration in the world.

The government has been rolling out a lot of different incentives over the years, including startup-friendly policies. If someone were to move to the UAE, what would they need to know?

We looked at all of the different sectors that are supportive of the startup landscape and tried to put in incentives to ensure that people actually prefer something up in the UAE as opposed to anywhere else. In most countries, it’s very, very hard to get a visa. If you are a talent and work specifically in a digital economy that we’re very focused on, you can get a permanent residency or a long-term residency right off the bat. Another thing, you can start the company within a day. Third, there are a lot of different programs, for example, incubators and accelerators and government contracts that are very appealing.

TC: How did the UAE’s AI mandate come about, and what was your plan to get it started?

We asked what are we really trying to decipher? What exactly is the potential for the UAE, whether it’s positive potential or negative potential, and how can we ensure that we deploy AI effectively across the country in a way that improves quality of life. Quality of life is actually the main driver for AI. It’s not economic gain, as it is in many countries. Second, it is hard to ensure that our policies or legislations actually give us an advantage with regards to the negative consequences of deploying AI, whether it’s locally or globally. If AI goes wrong somewhere else, how do we ensure we are less likely to get burdened by it? Our motto from day one was building a responsible artificial intelligence nation that is useful for the current, but also for the future.

Do you expect the UAE to have challenges attracting U.S. talent and investment due the region being known for its human rights violations?

The Middle East does have a reputation as being something of a ‘tough neighborhood’ for a wide range of reasons, from conflict to failures of governance. We do see the Emirates as differentiated, with a highly tolerant, multinational community consisting of people from over 195 nationalities living, working, learning and playing together in an atmosphere of peace, stability and security.

Why has supporting startups and venture capital been such an important push for the region?

A few reasons: First, if you look at our history, the UAE has always been a country of merchants and always looking to support business and unleash opportunities. The second thing is, we have been very adamant and very vocal about our ambition to diversify away from oil and that can be seen through investments in renewables and other parts of our economy, namely the digital economy, to ensure that we are competitive and comparative to advanced and developed countries from around the world. Finally, we are not a large country, so we will not be able to compete in certain sectors with other countries that have a cheaper cost of labor. But, if you look at the digital economy and sectors that are emerging right now, because of the advancement of technology, you’re able to get incredible returns from talent that — even if they are quite expensive — are able to create output, and that is what we’re actually aiming towards.

European Union keeps mobile roaming fees at bay for another decade

Five years ago, the European Union passed rules which largely ended mobile roaming fees for citizens traveling with their devices across borders within the bloc. Today lawmakers are reupping the regulation that lets EU citizens “roam like at home” for a full decade, meaning European consumers can keep avoiding most extra fees when travelling within another of the 27 EU Member States (or the EEA) until at least 2032.

The updated regulation also brings some new additions — including a focus on quality of service, with a requirement that consumers have access to the same services abroad in the EU as at home when the same networks and technologies are available on the network in the visited Member State.

This means, for example, that a roaming customer who can use 5G services at home should also have 5G roaming services — where they are available — in the visited Member State.

The quality of service provision does not mean a guarantee of getting the same mobile network speed when roaming, since network speeds can vary, but the Commission says the new rules “aim to ensure that when similar quality or speeds are available in the visited network, the domestic operator should ensure the same quality of the roaming service”.

Operators are also required to inform their customers of the quality of services they can expect while roaming by stating this in the roaming contract and publishing information on their website.

The Commission argues that quality of service will be increasingly important as 5G rollouts expand and mobile network technology continues to evolve (its PR includes the phrase “future 6G” — alongside talk of the EU “investing in developing and using innovative digital solutions”).

“As concerns 5G services, it will become more and more important for consumers travelling abroad to know if they could be affected by limitations in available network quality when using certain applications and services,” it suggests. “The new roaming rules aim to enable innovation and business development, ensuring the widest use of innovative services and minimising the risk that citizens would not be able to use certain applications requiring the latest network technology, such as 5G, when crossing internal EU borders.”

The EU’s executive also frames the updated roaming regulation as a boon to digital innovation by reducing the risk of usage disruption since consumers can continuously use their apps and services as they travel across borders in the EU.

The Commission’s PR makes no mention of contrasting recent developments in the UK — which ceased to be an EU Member on January 31 2020, following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum vote to leave the bloc — and where, since the EU roaming regulation ceased to apply, most of the big carriers have quietly announced they will be reintroducing roaming charges for their UK subscribers travelling in the EU.

But UK mobile users are unlikely to have missed the fact that Brexit has meant a return of roaming fees when they want to travel in Europe.

Some Brits may therefore detect a faint trace of trolling in this statement from Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, commenting on the extension of fee-free roaming inside the EU, who said: “Remember when we had to switch off mobile data when travelling in Europe — to avoid ending up with a massive roaming bill? Well this is history. And we intend to keep it this way for at least the next 10 years. Better speed, more transparency: We keep improving EU citizens’ lives.”


Another focus for the EU’s updated regulation is around increasing transparency about the types of services that can still bring additional costs when roaming, such as calling customer service numbers, helpdesks or insurance companies — to help travellers in the bloc avoid related ‘bill shocks’.

The Commission says consumers who are roaming should receive an SMS about “potential increased charges” from using such services.

“The SMS should include a link to a dedicated webpage providing additional information on the types of services and, if available, about the relevant phone numbering ranges,” it notes, suggesting operators may also include information about the types of services that may be subject to higher charges in roaming in their contracts with the consumers.

The updated rules are also intended to improve information provision about and access to emergency communications across the EU — such as via the single European emergency number, 112.

“Dialing the emergency numbers and transmitting information on the location of the caller while roaming should be seamless and for free. Likewise, citizens who cannot place a call to 112 should be able to access emergency services free of charge through alternative means when roaming, for example through real time text or a smartphone application,” says the Commission.

“The new roaming rules also reinforce access to emergency services, through calls and alternative means of communications in case of cross border use. It will also ensure that the transmission of caller location will be seamless and free of charge while using roaming services.”

The EU is continuing to regulate wholesale caps — controlling the maximum prices a visited operator may charge for the use of its network by another operator in order to provide roaming services — with the Commission describing this as “an essential element for the sustainability of ‘roam like at home’ for operators”. Its review of the roaming market concluded that wholesale caps should be further reduced.

“The co-legislators agreed on a gradual reduction of the wholesale caps from 2022 onwards,” it notes. “These caps reflect decreasing operators’ wholesale costs of providing roaming services, provide sufficient investment incentives and maximise sustainability for EU operators.”

The Commission expects these wholesale cost reductions to lead to benefits for consumers — such as more generous data allowances while roaming and less likelihood of consumers having to pay surcharges for data usage that exceeds contract allowances.

Operators will still be able to apply a ‘fair use’ policy — meaning that if a person moves to live in another EU country it will be better for them to move to a local contract, as permanent roaming is no longer considered ‘fair use’.

Uh oh! European carriers are trying to get into ‘personalized’ ad targeting

As Google works on reconfiguring its adtech stack to move away from cookie-based ad targeting to something else that’s not yet fixed but which it claims will be better for individual web users’ privacy — and after Apple’s move last year to lock down third-party tracking of app users on iOS, also on a claim its better for user privacy — a number of telcos in Europe are sniffing opportunity to press in the polar opposite direction.

In recent months it’s emerged that several telcos in the region are testing what they describe as a “cross-operator infrastructure for digital advertising and digital marketing” — aka TrustPid, as they’re branding the ad targeting initiative — although, as is customary with respawning adtech, they’re claiming their approach is “secure and privacy-friendly.”

Users of mobile networks — who pay their hard-earned money to get cellular connectivity, not to be clobbered with (yet) more consent pop-up spam and/or be ad-stalked around the internet — may well take a very different view, as they wonder how many times they’re going to have to keep slaying the tracking zombie.

EU privacy regulators are also on early alert, having fielded complaints and/or raised concerns over the telcos’ approach — which suggests regulatory intervention could follow if carriers decide to move ahead with a full launch.

The carriers are dubbing their plan a “counter-design to third-party cookies” — and say it involves the creation of “pseudo-anonymous tokens” that are linked to the mobile device user’s IP and mobile phone number (which is classified as personal data under EU law).

The ‘twist,’ if you can call it that, is that different tokens are generated for each ad partner — which they claim “limits” the merging of data from different ad partners to create profiles on customers. But individual level ad targeting is still individual level ad targeting. (And consent spam may still be unlawfully attention sapping.)

The telcos involved in TrustPid are proposing to manage — and presumably monetize — advertisers’ access to this network-based infrastructure.

Technical details of how the tracking-based targeting is intended to work in practice are not immediately clear — but here’s how Vodafone, which is leading the initiative — explains the approach online:

  • Your mobile number and IP address will be used by your network provider, e.g. Vodafone or Deutsche Telekom, to generate a pseudonymous network identifier based on which we generate your pseudonymous unique token (“TrustPid”). The IP address is considered traffic data. Traffic data is personal data processed while delivering a telecommunications service.
  • We use this TrustPid to create additional marketing tokens for the websites of advertisers and publishers you visit (“website specific tokens”). Advertisers and publishers aren’t able to identify you as a person via the website specific tokens. Where you have provided consent, advertisers and publishers will use the website specific tokens to provide you with personalised online marketing or conduct analytics.
  • We will keep a list of advertisers and publishers that you have consented to provide you with personalised online marketing or conduct analytics based on your TrustPid in order to show you this list via our Privacy Portal so you can manage your consent for those parties at any time.

As noted above, the proposal by European telcos to embed themselves into the ad-tracking game has quickly attracted plenty of the wrong kinds of attention — with regulators and data protection experts querying the legal basis for the processing — as well as, more broadly — questioning the ethics of repurposing mobile network traffic for ad tracking.

News of the proposal to fire up individual-level ad-targeting at the carrier level in Europe made it into German press late last month where it was reported that Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom were testing TrustPid locally — with the German publisher Bild/Springer initially signed up (another local publisher, NTV/RTL Group, has since also been reported to have joined the tests).

A report in Spiegel called the TrustPid trial “the return of the supercookie” — a reference to a deeply unpopular tracking technique used by U.S. carrier Verizon about a decade ago (which also attracted FCC sanction).

“Cellular providers like Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom are in a unique position. Even if the browser routinely deletes cookies or even changes the IP address, the provider can still link the data traffic to the respective cell phone number,” Spiegel wrote in the report [translated from German with machine translation]. “Advertisers don’t want access to names or real mobile phone numbers, only to a pseudonymous identifier. However, this can quickly be reassigned to a specific user profile, for example when shopping in an online shop or logging in to an e-mail provider.”

The newspaper went on to quote a spokesperson for the data protection authority in North Rhine-Westphalia — raising questions about the appropriateness of TrustPid’s stated reliance on user consent for its legal basis. The DPA’s spokesperson added that the authority would be taking a closer look at the initiative’s compliance with EU data protection law.

Media attention to the TrustPid trial in Germany was quickly followed by an announcement by the country’s federal data protection authority, the BfDI — presumably getting a lot of alarmed inbound from citizens of the famously privacy-loving country at that point — admitting that the project was presented to it in 2021. But it emphasized it had not given any kind of sign-off on lawfulness of the approach.

Indeed, on the contrary, the federal authority said it had flagged a number of “data protection issues” vis-a-vis the proposal, including its focus on relying on consent for its legal basis.

“At that time, we pointed out various data protection problem areas, in particular the requirements for effective consent. However, we have NOT made any final project assessment or given any kind of approval. It was only agreed that there will be further consultations with the relevant telecommunications service providers in the future,” the authority wrote [in German; we’ve used machine translation] at the end of May.

Nonetheless, Vodafone et al. appear to have pressed on with their tests — which, earlier this month, were reported to have spread to Spain, via local carriers Movistar and Orange.

Asked about the legal basis being relied upon for the experimental tracking system, Simon Poulter, a senior spokesman for Vodafone, denied that TrustPid is akin to a ‘supercookie.’

“What we’re trialling in Germany is a system based on digital tokens which do not include any directly identifiable information. Participation in the trial is only possible after having previously given voluntary and explicit consent (so-called opt-in),” he told TechCrunch.

“For a single user, the token generated will be different for each different partner. This limits the merging of data from different parties to create extensive profiles on customers — one of the big drawbacks for consumers in the way digital advertising works today. The tokens are expired after 90 days providing consumers with further protection. The telecommunications providers do not enhance the tokens with any customer, traffic or location data nor is this provided by the service in any other way. Neither the partners, nor TrustPid itself, can identify an individual by means of the tokens created by TrustPid.”

In further remarks, Vodafone’s spokesman also claimed:

The service doesn’t intercept or alter the data flows between a user and a website in any way, contrary to how other technologies sometimes called supercookies work” — and went on to dub it a “win-win” for users who he also claimed can “take control over their online privacy and decide who can show them personalized content and advertising.”

While there are some technical differences between assigning a permanent, fixed ad identifier per mobile device and linking single-use pseudo-anonymous tokens to target ads per device, at bottom both are setting out to repurpose mobile network infrastructure for tracking. And many mobile users would say that sums to the same kind of creepy.

In TrustPid’s case, telcos banding together with select publishers to erect a whole new attention-sapping vector targeting mobile users — which requires them to keep denying consent to ad-tracking as they go about their business on the mobile web as they’re faced with yet another unfamiliar-sounding ‘partner’ in the laundry list of cookie pop-up consent demanding data processors — does not sound like the kind of ‘control’ most people would prize.

It also pays to remember that a large chunk of current online advertising was recently found in breach of EU data protection rules — after the IAB Europe and its TCF framework were deemed to be delivering compliance theatre (rather than lawful compliance), exactly because of bogus reliance on non-compliant consent spam.

The IAB was given a few months to come up with a reformed approach. So a bunch of European carriers proposing a new wave of consent-based tracking of regional mobile users looks ill-thought through, to put it mildly.

Genuine user control — if that’s what Vodafone et al. actually want to deliver — would require this tracking infrastructure to be always off at source. Unless or until a mobile user instructed their telco to turn it on. Aka, making it opt-in.

But — as far as we can gather — that’s not how TrustPid has been designed to work.

TrustPid’s website claims users can withdraw their consent at any time via its Privacy Portal (i.e., in addition to repeatedly denying consent at the publisher website level). However when TechCrunch attempted this process — by accessing TrustPid’s bespoke “manage your consent” process via a mobile device connected to a participating mobile network — we were unable to access any controls that allowed us to actually opt out. (It’s possible the test has only been rolled out to a portion of participating carrier network’s users; but if it’s not clear who can even opt out that is not exactly looking amazing on the transparency front, either.)

The convoluted process TrustPid has devised to ‘opt out’ also merits a mention — as it requires browsing to this brand name website (not your carrier’s own site) while connected to a participating mobile network (not Wi-Fi) and clicking on a “Verify me” button that’s accompanied by an off-putting chunk of text which states that you agree to the processing of your personal data “as detailed in the Privacy Notice [which is hyperlinked] in order to verify you and enable access to the “manage your consent” section of the Privacy Portal” (Actual quote; I kid ye not!).

When we tapped on this horrible-sounding “Verify me” button it disappeared and was replaced by the tedious-sounding word “Accessing…” which was accompanied by a looping status bar that just kept looping infinitely and never actually progressed to displaying anything — such as an ‘opt-out’ button.

So, in our experience, TrustPid’s claimed ‘opt out’ was indeed pure dark pattern theatre.

Moreover, since the TrustPid tokens are designed to re-spawn every 90 days, the opt-out-seeking user must — presumably — return afresh every three months to restate their desire not to be tracked.

If that’s control, it’s an exceptionally tedious flavor that makes a mockery of user agency by requiring exercising it a never-ending chore.

Failing TrustPid requiring affirmative user consent via an opt-in, the telcos could at least provide a persistent, centralized opt-out.

Instead they seem to have devised a ‘control’ that’s either decentralized/scattered (i.e., across an unknown number of various publisher consent flows); and/or complex and inherently ephemeral as it perpetually resets on TrustPid’s own multilayered “Privacy Portal” — and ofc they’ve branded all this as “privacy-friendly.”

Frankly it’s exhausting just describing it. (Let alone having to mark a calendar with a recurring event to refresh an opt-out of a thing we never asked to be included in in the first place.)

TechCrunch contacted Spain’s data protection watchdog about TrustPid’s tests in the country to ask if it has any concerns. The regulator confirmed it has received a complaint and the AEPD’s spokesperson told us it would process the complaint following standard procedures — so it remains to be seen whether it (or any German DPAs) progress to opening a formal investigation.

(The AEPD received a similar complaint against Apple’s IDFA — an ad-tracking ID (albeit a fixed one) the iPhone maker links to iOS devices — back in November 2020 and said at the time it would investigate that, though we’ve not seen any public outcome yet.)

Prior to a few DPAs expressing concerns, the TrustPid experiment landed on the radar of the Washington Post’s privacy engineering lead, Aram Zucker-Scharff — who tweeted this unreassuring assessment of what he’d spotted back in April, while pointing out that T-Mobile was already doing something similar in the U.S. on an opt-out basis.

Thing is, the U.S. does not have comprehensive data protection legislation to regulate how mobile users can be tracked. Whereas the European Union does — via the ePrivacy Directive, which regulates tracking technologies and mandates that users are asked for their consent to such tracking.

Europe’s top court has also weighed in in recent years — making it clear that consent for non-essential tracking must be obtained prior to storing or accessing the tracking tech.

There is also the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — and its requirement for privacy by design and default; for transparency — and for consent to be informed, specific/non-bundled and freely given.

All of which should count for something when it comes to protecting European mobile users from creepy, network-level tracking.

Asked about TrustPid’s approach to consent, Poulter claimed no processing of users’ personal data occurs within the TrustPid system prior to a user accepting a cookie pop-up on a participating publishers’ website. “Explicit consent is collected via participating partners before the point of data processing,” he told us. “This consent is then used to provide the service. No tokens are generated unless consent is obtained. Each participating partner requires their own consent.”

However, per his description of the system, none of the participating carriers themselves ever proactively ask for user consent at any point — which, if they did that, would at least surface the fact they are trying to repurpose subscribers’ mobile network traffic as ad-tracking infrastructure. So the source of the tracking looks obfuscated by design.

The average mobile user getting a pop-up on their device from their carrier — asking if they can use their IP and mobile number so websites can target them with “personalized” ads — would surely insta-hit the ‘no way José!’ button.

By outsourcing the gathering of consents to third party ad ‘partners,’ TrustPid’s approach looks intended to dodge denials — but by doing that it risks running counter to key principles baked into EU law.

There is also just the pure creepy optics. It looks hella baaaaaaad. Because this is mobile network traffic data. And can a telco really delegate consent collection of that to a random grab bag of other advertising ‘partners’?

“Companies that operate communication networks should neither track their customers nor should they help others to track them,” Wolfie Christl, a researcher at Cracked Labs in Austria — who raised early concerns about TrustPid’s approach — told TechCrunch.

“I consider the project an irresponsible abuse of their very specific trusted position as communication network operators. It is a dangerous attack on the rights of millions. It appears they want to legally justify it with the misleading and meaningless pseudo-consent banners we have to deal with on websites every day, which is irresponsible and outrageous.”

“The project undermines trust into communication technology and should be stopped immediately,” Christl added. “I hope that European data protection authorities quickly team up and stop the project.”

Dr. Lukasz Olejnik, a privacy researcher and consultant based in Europe — who was similarly quick to query whether the telcos’ experiment complies with the EU’s ‘privacy by design’ requirements — also highlights how unpopular this sort of tracking tends to be with users.

“While some U.S. carriers tried to field test such systems years ago, it never really caught on. The thing is, people rather disliked such systems and it’s no wonder why. Building it with privacy is hard. I am not aware of any privacy considerations or thinking put into this TrustPid endeavour,” he said.

“When people subscribe to telecom carrier services, what they expect is a telecom service. Such additions are unexpected,” he added.

Other carriers involved in the TrustPid project that we contacted for comment referred us back to Vodafone — whose spokesperson did finally confirm that carriers do not intend to gather any consents themselves.

“The participating website must obtain explicit consent from the user at the point before any data processing begins,” said Poulter.

“TrustPid makes use of Vodafone’s network connectivity to anonymously identify a user on a website — once their consent has been expressly given. Only once that unique digital token is issued can advertisers and publishers use them for targeted advertisements. The tokens do not include any personally identifiable information. The tokens have a reduced lifespan and are specific to individual advertisers and publishers. The consumer is free to opt out at any time via the privacy portal that provides a transparent view of what consent they have given (i.e., opt in).

“Every brand or publisher token holds a consent against it, which can be revoked by the user at any time through a privacy portal. Once revoked, that brand or publisher can no longer use it for advertising. Vodafone does not control that process.”

Vodafone’s spokesman added: “We believe it is relevant to offer advertisers and publishers … a level playing field for the digital advertising sector but, most importantly, to offer end users greater control, choice and transparency.”

If Vodafone believes the tracking system it wants to subject mobile users to is indeed fair and transparent — and compliant with EU data protection law — why are experts and regulators concerned?

Poulter did not offer a direct response to that question — merely confirming that the telco “engaged with the BfDI to get its view from a telco regulation perspective.”

“We will also engage with other regional or national regulators where they have any queries,” he also told us, adding: “Specifically, the BfDI gave guidance on how to ensure compliance, including transparency and ensuring users can ‘reject’ with a single click at the first layer of consent request in the interface.”

Of course Vodafone et al. won’t be in control of the look and feel of cookie compliance on participating publishers’ websites — so won’t be in a position to ensure a clear ‘reject’ option is offered at the first layer. And given we all know what a total compliance trash fire cookie consent pop-ups generally remain, as resource-strapped DPAs have largely looked the other way at such widespread privacy breaches, it looks safe to assume TrustPid’s partners will deliver more of the same.

There’s a further twist in the tale, too, as the BfDI told us TrustPid itself has been established as a U.K.-based company — meaning it won’t be regulated by EU-based regulators — at a time when the U.K. government is moving forward on a plan to diverge domestic legislation from the EU’s data protection framework, including by loosening the rules around consent for cookies … Fancy that!

The German federal data protection authority also confirmed it was “merely informed” by Vodafone about its trial of the TrustPid-technology together with Deutsche Telekom, as it regulates the two carriers.

“For TrustPID, the responsible data protection authority is not us but the British data protection authority ICO. The U.K.-based company TrustPid itself has not contacted the BfDI at any time,” it told us.

“The mobile network provider creates a unique, pseudonymous network identifier for TrustPid. Therefore TrustPid technology could be seen as a value-added service according to the ePrivacy Directive. But the BfDI emphasizes that only an informed and voluntary given consent is an acceptable foundation for the use of this technology,” the authority went on, expressing scepticism about the use of consent for this type of tracking.”

“High standards must be set here and we are sceptical that the current consent fulfils that aim,” it added. “The BfDI has not yet made a final decision regarding the data processing by Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom.”

AT&T killed off the HBO Max bundle in its highest-priced unlimited wireless plan

Telecommunications provider AT&T quietly dropped HBO Max as a bundled perk for new AT&T customers on its top unlimited wireless plan, AT&T Unlimited Premium. The company launched the new plan this week, which replaced Unlimited Elite. AT&T confirmed the new plan doesn’t include the streaming service but didn’t provide a detailed explanation regarding its decision.

“HBO Max is a great service, but we constantly experiment with the features we offer our customers to give them the best value,” AT&T spokesman Jim Greer told TechCrunch.

The bundling of HBO Max with AT&T’s wireless plans helped gain customers and convince existing subscribers to switch to the higher-priced plan. Now that the Warner Bros. Discovery mega-merger has closed, AT&T no longer owns HBO Max, therefore, has no motive to keep giving consumers the perk. With this week’s move, AT&T no longer has a video streaming partner for its main wireless service.

It is important to note that existing customers who already have an Unlimited Elite plan will continue to receive HBO Max for no additional charge. Also, AT&T’s Cricket Wireless brand, the company’s prepaid carrier, still offers the ad-supported version of HBO Max included with its $60 per month unlimited plan.

Previously, the AT&T Unlimited Elite wireless plan offered HBO Max for no extra charge. Although AT&T Unlimited Premium will not offer free HBO Max, the plan will include 50 gigabytes (up from 40GB per month) of high-speed hotspot data and starts at $50 per month per line when you get four lines.

Before the launch of the streaming service HBO Max, the carrier had used to give HBO for free in some of its unlimited plans going back to 2017.

WarnerMedia had been dragging down AT&T’s overall earnings and reported that for Q1 2022, WarnerMedia’s operating income was $1.3 billion, down 32.7% year-over-year. AT&T said that the decline was largely a result of increased “investments incurred in launching CNN+ and expanding new territories at HBO Max.” CNN+ was then shuttered a month after its launch.

As of the end of March, HBO Max and HBO had 76.8 million total subscribers worldwide, a 3 million quarterly net gain.

AT&T’s rivals T-Mobile and Verizon have also used the strategy of bundling streaming services. Since 2017, T-Mobile has offered free subscriptions to Netflix (“Netflix on Us”) with some of its offerings and now offers a free year of Paramount+ Essentials and Apple TV+ for a few of its plans as well.

Verizon offers the Disney Bundle (Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu) at no additional charge with some of its higher-priced unlimited plans. It has previously offered a free year of Discovery+.

At the beginning of March, Verizon announced +Play, a content and entertainment hub that allows Verizon customers to manage subscriptions across entertainment, music, gaming, and more all in one platform. In April, the company announced that HBO Max would be a partner in that service. A full launch of +Play will be coming later this year.

Unlikely players team up to lead South Korea’s air taxi industry

The United States is perhaps one of the best countries to start an urban air mobility company. You only have to look at how fast well-funded startups like Joby Aviation, Wisk Aero and Lillium are building and testing electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft.

However, South Korea, which lacks the venture capital, entrepreneurial ecosystem and aerospace legacy of the U.S., might be the first to lay the groundwork for taking urban air mobility (UAM) from an expensive science project into a viable service.

In 2020, the South Korean government set out its road map to commercialize air taxis by 2025, a goal that has since empowered mobility-focused private companies to form consortia dedicated to that end. Now, in addition to carmakers, seemingly unlikely players — think telecommunications companies and ride-sharing platforms — are pushing the UAM industry forward.

The unusual suspects

It’s not a stretch to imagine automakers getting involved in this space. Indeed, some American companies like General Motors have air mobility in their sights. After all, they have the brand recognition and the manufacturing might to at least get a vehicle off the production line.

In South Korea, Hyundai, the country’s biggest carmaker, has earmarked KRW 1.8 trillion ($1.4 billion) for flying taxis in South Korea by 2025. The company in 2020 also formed a consortium with South Korean telco giant KT and a couple other companies to commercialize UAMs by 2028 and build the country’s first vertiport at the Millennium Hilton Seoul.

Now, you’re probably wondering how telecommunications firms fit into this equation. Predictably, it appears they fill out the communications part of the puzzle.

Unlikely players team up to lead South Korea’s air taxi industry

The United States is perhaps one of the best countries to start an urban air mobility company. You only have to look at how fast well-funded startups like Joby Aviation, Wisk Aero and Lillium are building and testing electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft.

However, South Korea, which lacks the venture capital, entrepreneurial ecosystem and aerospace legacy of the U.S., might be the first to lay the groundwork for taking urban air mobility (UAM) from an expensive science project into a viable service.

In 2020, the South Korean government set out its road map to commercialize air taxis by 2025, a goal that has since empowered mobility-focused private companies to form consortia dedicated to that end. Now, in addition to carmakers, seemingly unlikely players — think telecommunications companies and ride-sharing platforms — are pushing the UAM industry forward.

The unusual suspects

It’s not a stretch to imagine automakers getting involved in this space. Indeed, some American companies like General Motors have air mobility in their sights. After all, they have the brand recognition and the manufacturing might to at least get a vehicle off the production line.

In South Korea, Hyundai, the country’s biggest carmaker, has earmarked KRW 1.8 trillion ($1.4 billion) for flying taxis in South Korea by 2025. The company in 2020 also formed a consortium with South Korean telco giant KT and a couple other companies to commercialize UAMs by 2028 and build the country’s first vertiport at the Millennium Hilton Seoul.

Now, you’re probably wondering how telecommunications firms fit into this equation. Predictably, it appears they fill out the communications part of the puzzle.

Battery startups are working to disrupt more than just cars and trucks

There’s an open secret in the battery startup world — everyone is pitching their cells as the ones to spur consumers to ditch their gas-guzzling SUVs for sleek, fast-charging electric vehicles with cross-country range, even if they’re really eyeing something else. Sure, some companies will leapfrog the steady 5% annual improvements that lithium-ion batteries have been making over the last several years. (Most won’t, but that shouldn’t stop companies from trying!)

Sometimes, though, the EV pitch is just that — a pitch. Battery startups are almost obligated to note it in their press releases and pitch decks. Investors love the potential for growth that EVs represent, and startups would be remiss if they didn’t at least mention the enormous potential market.

As investors have realized the boundless potential of the EV market, money has been pouring into battery startups. In the last five years alone, $42 billion in venture capital and growth equity have been invested in the sector, according to a TechCrunch and PitchBook analysis.

Still, EVs are just one part of the story. The reality is that because batteries have improved radically in the last decade, startups like Form Energy and EcoFlow no longer have to pretend that they’re going to be the Next Big Thing in electrified mobility. Rather, they can acknowledge that they have far more potential to disrupt other parts of the economy.

One of the latest examples is Natron Energy. Natron was founded a decade ago after its CEO, Colin Wessells, came up with a battery that instead of nickel or cobalt used Prussian blue — the pigment that revolutionized the art world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Other researchers had explored Prussian blue’s use in batteries for decades, but Wessells found a way to make a commercially viable cell using a version of the pigment coupled with a sodium-based electrolyte. Perhaps more important than what materials it uses are those it doesn’t — lithium, cobalt, nickel, or other rare materials whose prices have skyrocketed in the last year.

But apart from a brief, almost vestigial mention of EVs in a recent press release, Natron recognizes that the strength of its cells lies in other markets and has focused the company accordingly.

We need app store competition, not Apple’s 1960s-style paternalistic monopoly

A pair of bills moving through Congress would force some of the largest tech companies to cede control over how people find and use mobile apps, leading to more competition and lower prices. But big tech companies, especially Apple, want to scare people with dire warnings that the bills would put their security in jeopardy.

Tellingly, big tech firms are not so loud about other things jeopardized by the bills — their app store monopolies and ability to make more money off mobile customers and app developers.

Pro-competition bills — S. 2992, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, and S. 2710, the Open App Markets Act — would open up the largest app stores, including Apple’s and Google’s, by requiring them to allow competing third-party app stores and alternate channels for in-app payments. The bills would also stop the largest app store operators from preferencing their own apps over competitors’.

iPhone users would have the freedom to install less expensive third-party apps and choose to shop at third-party app stores. While some alternative app stores might have a greater volume of malicious apps, others may take a stronger approach to security and privacy than Apple — one that isn’t limited by the drive to enhance a monopolist’s bottom line.

Alternative app stores or app-vetting services could also offer important security- and privacy-enhancing apps that Apple has banned from iOS devices.

Nothing in the bills would stop Apple and Google from vetting apps for their phones for privacy and security, or prevent them from offering new protective measures. So, because they trust Apple’s vetting of apps and are happy with the apps Apple lets them download, many iPhone users will choose to stick with the App Store. For those users, nothing will change under these bills.

The choice would be theirs. But Apple doesn’t want that. It wants to decide what, and how, users can purchase mobile apps. And it’s not just because the company is concerned about users’ privacy and security, which indeed it is.

No, it’s also because Apple wants to protect its monopoly profits. Apple gets a 30% cut of what users pay for an app, a cost to developers that gets passed on to consumers. Locking users and developers into the App Store helps drive Apple’s profit margins on the service into the stratosphere — to more than 70% by some estimates. We shouldn’t be naïve to think that such a bonanza, and not just security concerns, motivates Apple.

In 2020, for example, Apple prevented Basecamp, an application development software company, from making important security fixes on its new paid email service HEY because it violated App Store rules. The “violation”? HEY developers did not route users’ subscription payments through Apple to ensure that Apple received its 30% cut. Apple threatened HEY that until changes were made, security updates would be blocked. This was despite HEY following the same payment pathway that Netflix and Amazon have always used. Following a public pressure campaign and negative press, Apple relented and allowed the security fixes to proceed, but other app innovators face the same threat.

Apple’s claims that letting users have more choice would put them in harm’s way is the same old paternalistic take on a market that we saw AT&T embrace when it sought to maintain its mid-20th-century monopoly over telecommunications. The country has rejected these paternalistic arguments in the past. Not Apple.

In Epic Games v. Apple, a lawsuit in which the maker of Fortnite alleges that Apple has an illegal monopoly in iOS app distribution, Apple claims that only its complete control over app distribution and in-app payments can protect users. Yet, it bans apps and features that would serve a wider range of security and privacy needs, like VPN apps for international travelers and apps that tell the user if their device has been jailbroken. (EFF filed a friend of the court brief in the case siding with Epic.)

While the judge in Epic Games v. Apple declined to find that Apple is a monopolist, she recognized that things must change. She wouldn’t let Apple delay enforcement of a California court ruling that says the company can no longer prohibit developers from pointing to other means of payment besides Apple’s own payment systems. She also embraced the idea that Apple could vet iOS apps for security but still allow iPhone users to get mobile apps from other sources that also screen for security and privacy.

Monopolistic control is not the way to ensure user security. Competition, not walled gardens, is the best way to create better, safer products. Apple’s fear-mongering that competition would prevent it from addressing security is disingenuous, because monopoly control over app distribution is simply not necessary to protect users. In fact, it makes users less secure. Congress should see through Apple’s attempts to foment fear about a world where it does not have complete control over iPhone customers’ App Store experience, and pass these pro-competition bills. Users can have choice and security.

Google Meet gets in-meeting reactions, PiP, end-to-end encryption and more

Google announced a major update to Google Meet today that includes a number of long-requested features and plenty that you didn’t even know you needed. There is a long list here, but the main additions are likely in-meeting reactions to give immediate updates to the Meet companion mode, emoji-based feedback, the ability to use Meet right inside of Docs, Sheets and Slides, as well as a new picture-in-picture mode so you can more easily ignore a meeting and the ability to stream a meeting to YouTube.

Security is another highlight of today’s announcement. Starting in May, Google is rolling out client-side encryption in Meet, which is currently still in beta. With this, users have full control over the encryption keys and the identity provider used to access those keys. Later this year, Google will also introduce option end-to-end encryption for all meetings. Currently, all Meet data is encrypted in transit.

Image Credits: Google

“Since 2020, it’s become increasingly clear that human connection is crucial,” said Dave Citron, Google’s director of product management for Google Meet and Voice in a press briefing ahead of today’s announcement. “We know we need solutions that help people build connections that can bridge the gap between physical spaces and the somewhere else.”

He noted that a lot of these updates today focus on “collaboration equity,” that is, the ability to contribute to meetings regardless of location, role, experience level, language and device preference. One example for this is companion mode, which launched earlier this year and allows users to join a video meeting on a second screen. Now, Google is updating this with personal video tiles for every participant in a hybrid meeting, even if they are in a conference room with other participants. “This update will work towards making those in physical space have the same experience as those who are working remotely,” Citron explained.

Image Credits: Google

Like too many features Google announces these days, these updates will roll out “later this year.” This also means you’ll have to wait until next month to regale your co-workers with emojis during a meeting to “help teams celebrate wins, offer support and share the love,” as a Google spokesperson called it.

Picture-in-picture mode will also roll out next month, while automatic noise cancellation on Google Meet hardware is now rolling out to all users on Meet-enabled Logitech, Acer and Asus hardware.

The ability to stream to YouTube, which most companies will probably use for webinars and similar outward-facing meetings, is coming later this year.

Google also today announced a couple of updates to Spaces, but you’re probably using Slack, so you can find more information about those here.

Image Credits: Google


Glia raises $45M at a $1B+ valuation for an AI-based CRM that lets agents get hands-on to help

The world continues to shift more of its customer service needs online, and those building tools to help manage that demand are seeing their stars rise as a result. In the latest development, Glia — which builds AI-based CRM solutions for agents to converse with customers across multiple mediums (including video, voice, messaging, email and chatbots), and then to screenshare to give hands-on help to those users — has closed a new round of funding, a Series D of $45 million that catapults the company’s valuation to over $1 billion.

Insight Partners led the round, with Wildcat Capital Management and a new strategic backer, the unified business communications giant RingCentral, also participating. Insight and Wildcat are previous backers, including in Glia’s $78 million Series C round in January 2021. The company — co-headquartered in New York and Tallinn, Estonia — has now raised more than $150 million overall, it said.

Glia made a name for itself originally providing CRM tools to the finance industry, and that is where it still counts the majority of its customers. It says that more than 250 banks, credit unions, insurance companies and other financial services businesses currently use its tools to help its customer service teams field support questions — and, because so much customer service is interlinked with sales these days, potentially upsell those customers to more services.

As with the previous round, the funding will largely be going towards R&D. Specifically Glia plans to build more tools leveraging artificial intelligence and analytics to support customer service agents’ direct work with customers — both to help them with basic support questions, as well as in those cases where they screen share with customers to get walked through a problem, and to subsequently navigate them to fixing an issue.

To date, it said it has handled over 10 billion interactions, making for a healthy trove of data that gets used to train and develop its machine learning algorithms. Glia will also be investing into bringing more advances into its messaging, voice and video solutions.

Finally, Glia will also be investing in business devopment to expand further internationally. Publicly-traded RingCentral has hundreds of multinational customers, and so Glia will likely be investing more into building services to address that global clientele.

Dan Michaeli, Glia’s CEO who co-founded the company with Carlos Paniagua (CTO) and Justin DiPietro (COO), told me last year that the pandemic gave his business a major push: with more business being carried out online, that had a natural effect on customer support getting more digital, too: revenues went up 150% between 2020 and 2021.

As the world settles down (we hope) in the wake of Covid-19 becoming endemic and something we can live with (again, we hope), customer service is unlikely to shift away from those digital channels, he said.

“The future of customer service is digital, and those that have yet to take steps to modernize their support and engagement strategies are already behind,” he said in a statement. “We’re thrilled by our investors’ confidence reflected in the round’s valuation, recognizing that we’ve only scratched the surface of what Glia can accomplish. Our rapid growth and successful relationships with financial services companies of all types demonstrates the urgent need for Digital Customer Service. As we build upon a decade of innovation, this capital will further extend our reach and help even more businesses across the globe reimagine how they connect with customers digitally.”

Indeed, even when customers today still opt to dial a number and speak to someone over the phone to ask questions about a product or service — and voice remains a popular channel — they will do so with “their screens in front of them,” as he described it to me last year.

The blended approach, and the attention to providing tech-based webbing to make the transition from one to the other easier for all kinds of users, is what has attracted investors to Glia so far.

“As enterprises digitize processes and services across the board, digital communication is inevitable, and Glia is leading the way in digitally transforming customer service,” said Lonne Jaffe, MD at Insight Partners, in a statement. “We’re investing more into the company because of its extraordinary growth and momentum and the enormous size of the market opportunity. Most people haven’t yet experienced first-hand the magic and power of Digital Customer Service as consumers, which stems from Glia’s proven ability to create seamless, uninterrupted experiences across CoBrowsing, voice, chat, and video. We’re excited to once again support Glia as they deepen their investment in R&D and continue to set the standard for Digital Customer Service across the globe.”