TikTok parent company ByteDance has built technology to let you insert your face into videos starring someone else. TechCrunch has learned that ByteDance has developed an unreleased feature using life-like deepfakes technology that the app’s code refers to as Face Swap. Code in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin asks users to take a multi-angle biometric scan of their face, then choose from a selection of videos they want to add their face to and share.
The deepfakes feature, if launched in Douyin and TikTok, could create a more controlled environment where face swapping technology plus a limited selection of source videos can be used for fun instead of spreading misinformation. It might also raise awareness of the technology so more people are aware that they shouldn’t believe everything they see online. But it’s also likely to heighten fears about what ByteDance could do with such sensitive biometric data — similar to what’s used to set up Face ID on iPhones.
Several other tech companies have recently tried to consumerize watered-down versions of deepfakes. The app Morphin lets you overlay a computerized rendering of your face on actors in GIFs. Snapchat offered a FaceSwap option for years that would switch the visages of two people in frame, or replace one on camera with one from your camera roll, and there are standalone apps that do that too, like Face Swap Live. Then last month, TechCrunch spotted Snapchat’s new Cameos for inserting a real selfie into video clips it provides, though the results aren’t meant to look confusingly realistic.
Most problematic has been Chinese deepfakes app Zao, which uses artificial intelligence to blend one person’s face into another’s body as they move and synchronize their expressions. Zao went viral in September despite privacy and security concerns about how users’ facial scans might be abused. Zao was previously blocked by China’s WeChat for presenting “security risks.” [Correction: While “Zao” is mentioned in the discovered code, it refers to the general concept rather than a partnership between ByteDance and Zao.]
But ByteDance could bring convincingly life-like deepfakes to TikTok and Douyin, two of the world’s most popular apps with over 1.5 billion downloads.
Hidden inside TikTok and Douyin
TechCrunch received a tip about the news from Israeli in-app market research startup Watchful.ai. The company had discovered code for the deepfakes feature in the latest version of TikTok and Douyin’s Android apps. Watchful.ai was able to activate the code in Douyin to generate screenshots of the feature, though it’s not currently available to the public.
First, users scan their face into TikTok. This also serves as an identity check to make sure you’re only submitting your own face so you can’t make unconsented deepfakes of anyone else using an existing photo or a single shot of their face. By asking you to blink, nod and open and close your mouth while in focus and proper lighting, Douyin can ensure you’re a live human and create a manipulable scan of your face that it can stretch and move to express different emotions or fill different scenes.
You’ll then be able to pick from videos ByteDance claims to have the rights to use, and it will replace with your own the face of whomever is in the clip. You can then share or download the deepfake video, though it will include an overlayed watermark the company claims will help distinguish the content as not being real. I received confidential access to videos made by Watchful using the feature, and the face swapping is quite seamless. The motion tracking, expressions and color blending all look very convincing.
“The ‘face-changing’ effect presented by this function is a fictional image generated by the superimposition of our photos based on your photos. In order to show that the original work has been modified and the video generated using this function is not a real video, we will mark the video generated using this function. Do not erase the mark in any way.”
“The information collected during the aforementioned detection process and using your photos to generate face-changing videos is only used for live detection and matching during face-changing. It will not be used for other purposes . . . And matches are deleted immediately and your facial features are not stored.”
“When you use this function, you can only use the materials provided by us, you cannot upload the materials yourself. The materials we provide have been authorized by the copyright owner”.
“According to the ‘Children’s Internet Personal Information Protection Regulations’ and the relevant provisions of laws and regulations, in order to protect the personal information of children / youths, this function restricts the use of minors”.
A Douyin spokesperson tells TechCrunch “Douyin follows the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which it operates, which is China.” They denied that the Face Swap terms of service appear in TikTok despite TechCrunch reviewing code from the app showing those terms of service and the feature’s functionality.
This is suspicious, and doesn’t explain why code for the deepfakes feature and special terms of service in English for the feature appear in TikTok, and not just Douyin, where the app can already be activated and a longer terms of service was spotted. TikTok’s U.S. entity has previously denied complying with censorship requests from the Chinese government in contradiction to sources who told The Washington Post that TikTok did censor some political and sexual content at China’s behest.
It’s possible that the deepfakes Face Swap feature never officially launches in China or the U.S. But it’s fully functional, even if unreleased, and demonstrates ByteDance’s willingness to embrace the controversial technology despite its reputation for misinformation and non-consensual pornography. At least it’s restricting the use of the feature by minors, only letting you face-swap yourself, and preventing users from uploading their own source videos. That avoids it being used to create dangerous misinformational videos like the slowed down one making House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem drunk, or clips of people saying things as if they were President Trump.
“It’s very rare to see a major social networking app restrict a new, advanced feature to their users 18 and over only,” Watchful.ai co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana tells TechCrunch. “These deepfake apps might seem like fun on the surface, but they should not be allowed to become trojan horses, compromising IP rights and personal data, especially personal data from minors who are overwhelmingly the heaviest users of TikTok to date.”
TikTok has already been banned by the U.S. Navy and ByteDance’s acquisition and merger of Musical.ly into TikTok is under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in The United States. Deepfake fears could further heighten scrutiny.
With the proper safeguards, though, face-changing technology could usher in a new era of user-generated content where the creator is always at the center of the action. It’s all part of a new trend of personalized media that could be big in 2020. Social media has evolved from selfies to Bitmoji to Animoji to Cameos, and now consumerized deepfakes. When there are infinite apps and videos and notifications to distract us, making us the star could be the best way to hold our attention.
Mobile game spending hits record $1.7B per week in Q1 2021, up 40% from pre-pandemic levels – TechCrunch
The COVID-19 pandemic drove increased demand for mobile gaming, as consumers under lockdowns looked to online sources of entertainment, including games. But even as COVID-19 restrictions are easing up, the demand for mobile gaming isn’t slowing. According to a new report from mobile data and analytics provider App Annie in collaboration with IDC, users worldwide downloaded 30% more games in the first quarter of 2021 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion per week in mobile games in Q1 2021.
That figure is up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, the report noted.
The U.S. and Germany led other markets in terms of growth in mobile game spending year-over-year as of Q1 2021 in the North American and Western European markets, respectively. Saudi Arabia and Turkey led the growth in the rest of the world, outside the Asia-Pacific region. The latter made up around half of the mobile game spend in the quarter, App Annie said.
The growth in mobile gaming, in part accelerated by the pandemic, also sees mobile further outpacing other forms of digital games consumption. This year, mobile gaming will increase its global lead over PC and Mac gaming to 2.9x and will extend its lead over home games consoles to 3.1x.
However, this change comes at a time when the mobile and console market is continuing to merge, App Annie notes, as more mobile devices are capable of offering console-like graphics and gameplay experiences, including those with cross-platform capabilities and social gaming features.
Games with real-time online features tend to dominate the Top Grossing charts on the app stores, including things like player-vs-player and cross-play features. For example, the top grossing mobile game worldwide on iOS and Google Play in Q1 2021 was Roblox. This was followed by Genshin Impact, which just won an Apple Design Award during the Worldwide Developer Conference for its visual experience.
The report also analyzed the ad market around gaming and the growth of mobile companion apps for game consoles, including My Nintendo, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation App, Steam, Nintendo Switch and Xbox apps. Downloads for these apps peaked under lockdowns in April 2020 in the U.S., but continue to see stronger downloads than pre-pandemic.
On the advertising front, App Annie says user sentiment toward in-game mobile ads improved in Q3 2020 compared with Q3 2019, but rewarded video ads and playable ads were preferred in the U.S.
Apple Podcasts Subscriptions go live worldwide – TechCrunch
Apple Podcasts Subscriptions are now live across more than 170 countries and regions, Apple announced this morning. First unveiled this spring, subscriptions allow listeners to unlock additional benefits for their favorite podcasts, including things like ad-free listening, early access to new episodes, bonus material, exclusives or whatever else the podcast creator believes will be something their fans will pay for. Channels allow podcasters to group their shows however they like — for instance, to highlight a set of shows with a shared theme, or to offer different mixes of free and paid content.
The new subscription features were initially set to arrive in May, but Apple later emailed creators that the launch was being pushed to June. This was likely due to a series of back-end issues impacting the service, including things like delayed episodes and malfunctioning analytics, among other things.
At launch, Apple says there are thousands of subscriptions and channels available, with more expected to arrive on a weekly basis.
When listeners purchase a subscription to a show, they’ll automatically follow the show in the redesigned Apple Podcasts app. The show’s page will also be updated with a Subscriber Edition label, so they’ll be able to more easily tell if they have access to the premium experience.
The app’s Listen Now tab will expand with new rows that provide access to paid subscriptions, including their available channels.
In the app, users can discover channels from show pages and through Search, browse through recommendations from the Listen Now and Browse tabs, and share channels with friends through Messages, Mail and other apps.
Apple’s delay to invest in the Podcasts market has given its rivals a head start on growing their own audience for podcasts. At the time of the spring announcement of subscriptions, for example, an industry report suggested that Spotify’s podcast listeners would top Apple’s for the first time in 2021.
Despite the competition, Apple is betting its massive install base will bring in creators. Those creators agree to pay Apple a 30% cut of their subscription revenue in year one, just like subscription-based iOS apps. That cut drops to 15% in year two. Spotify, by comparison, is taking no revenue cut for the next two years while its program gets off the ground. It will then take only a 5% fee.
Based on the debut lineup, it seems many creators and studios believe Apple’s footprint is worth the larger revenue share.
Early adopters of subscriptions include notable names like Lemonada Media, Luminary, Realm and Wondery; media and entertainment brands, including CNN, NPR, The Washington Post and Sony Music Entertainment.
Other studio participants include Audio Up, Betches Media, Blue Wire, Campside Media, Imperative Entertainment, Lantigua Williams & Co., Magnificent Noise, The Moth, Neon Hum Media, Three Uncanny Four, Wondery, Audacy’s Cadence13 and Ramble, Barstool Sports, Jake Brennan’s Double Elvis, Headgum, iHeartMedia’s The Black Effect, Big Money Players, Grim & Mild, Seneca Women, Shondaland, Relay FM, Tenderfoot TV, Radiotopia from PRX, Pushkin Industries, QCODE and others,
In the news category, there’s also The Athletic, Fox News, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Media, Politico and Vox Media, plus channels from other newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, radio stations and digital publishers, including ABC News, Axios, Billboard, Bravo, CNBC, CNN, Crooked Media, Dateline, Entertainment Weekly, Futuro Media, The Hollywood Reporter, LAist Studios, National Geographic, MSNBC, NBC News, NBC Sports, New York Magazine, The New York Times, SiriusXM, SB Nation, Southern Living, The Verge, TODAY, VICE, Vogue, Vox and WBUR.
Kids’ podcasts are also available, including those from GBH, Gen-Z Media, Pinna, Wonkybot Studios, TRAX from PRX and others.
Apple also highlighted independent creators offering subscriptions like “Birthful” with Adriana Lozada, “Pantsuit Politics” with Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland, “Snap Judgment” with Glynn Washington and “You Had Me At Black” with Martina Abrams Ilunga.
Meanwhile, international subscriptions and channels are being offered from ABC, LiSTNR and SBS from Australia; Abrace Podcasts from Brazil; CANADALAND and Frequency Podcast Network from Canada; GoLittle from Denmark; Europe 1, Louie Media, and Radio France from France; Der Spiegel, Podimo, and ZEIT ONLINE from Germany; Il Sole 24 Ore and Storielibere.fm from Italy; J-WAVE from Japan; Brainrich from Korea; libo/libo from Russia; Finyal Media from the UAE; and Broccoli Productions, The Bugle, Content Is Queen, the Guardian, Immediate Media, and Somethin’ Else from the U.K.
Subscriptions start at $0.49 U.S. per month and go up, with some popular shows priced at $2.99 per month and some channels, like Luminary, at $4.99 per month, to give you an idea of pricing. Apple Card users get a 3% cash back on their subscriptions, which can be viewed in Apple Wallet.
Once subscribed, you can listen across Apple devices, including iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, CarPlay, HomePod and HomePod mini.
Subscriptions were announced alongside a redesigned version of the Apple Podcasts app, which has received a number of usability complaints and sent some users in search of third-party apps. Apple has been responding to user feedback and addressed some issues in the iOS 14.6 update with other Library tab updates planned to arrive in future releases, perhaps iOS 14.7.
UK’s CMA opens market study into Apple, Google’s mobile “duopoly” – TechCrunch
The UK’s competition watchdog will take a deep dive look into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem, it said today — announcing a market study which will examine the pair’s respective smartphone platforms (iOS and Android); their app stores (App Store and Play Store); and web browsers (Safari and Chrome).
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is concerned that the mobile platform giants’ “effective duopoly” in those areas might be harming consumers, it added.
The study will be wide ranging, with the watchdog concerns about the nested gateways that are created as a result of the pair’s dominance of mobile ecosystem — intermediating how consumers can access a variety of products, content and services (such as music, TV and video streaming; fitness tracking, shopping and banking, to cite some of the examples provided by the CMA).
“These products also include other technology and devices such as smart speakers, smart watches, home security and lighting (which mobiles can connect to and control),” it went on, adding that it’s looking into whether their dominance of these pipes is “stifling competition across a range of digital markets”, saying too that it’s “concerned this could lead to reduced innovation across the sector and consumers paying higher prices for devices and apps, or for other goods and services due to higher advertising prices”.
The CMA further confirmed the deep dive will examine “any effects” of the pair’s market power over other businesses — giving the example of app developers who rely on Apple or Google to market their products to customers via their smart devices.
The watchdog already has an open investigation into Apple’s App Store, following a number of antitrust complaints by developers.
It is investigating Google’s planned depreciation of third party tracking cookies too, after complaints by adtech companies and publishers that the move could harm competition. (And just last week the CMA said it was minded to accept a series of concessions offered by Google that would enable the regulator to stop it turning off support for cookies entirely if it believes the move will harm competition.)
The CMA said both those existing investigations are examining issues that fall within the scope of the new mobile ecosystem market study but that its work on the latter will be “much broader”.
It added that it will adopt a joined-up approach across all related cases — “to ensure the best outcomes for consumers and other businesses”.
It’s giving itself a full year to examine Gapple’s mobile ecosystems.
It is also soliciting feedback on any of the issues raised in its statement of scope — calling for responses by 26 July. The CMA added that it’s also keen to hear from app developers, via its questionnaire, by the same date.
Taking on tech giants
The watchdog has previously scrutinized the digital advertising market — and found plenty to be concerned about vis-a-vis Google’s dominance there.
That earlier market study has been feeding the UK government’s plan to reform competition rules to take account of the market-deforming power of digital giants. And the CMA suggested the new market study, examining ‘Gapple’s’ mobile muscle, could similarly help shape UK-wide competition law reforms.
Last year the UK announced its plan to set up a “pro-competition” regime for regulating Internet platforms — including by establishing a dedicated Digital Markets Unit within the CMA (which got going earlier this year).
The legislation for the reform has not yet been put before parliament but the government has said it wants the competition regulator to be able to “proactively shape platforms’ behavior” to avoid harmful behavior before it happens” — saying too that it supports enabling ex ante interventions once a platform has been identified to have so-called “strategic market status”.
Germany already adopted similar reforms to its competition law (early this year), which enable proactive interventions to tackle large digital platforms with what is described as “paramount significance for competition across markets”. And its Federal Cartel Office has, in recent months, wasted no time in opening a number of proceedings to determine whether Amazon, Google and Facebook have such a status.
The CMA also sounds keen to get going to tackle Internet gatekeepers.
Commenting in a statement, CEO Andrea Coscelli said:
“Apple and Google control the major gateways through which people download apps or browse the web on their mobiles – whether they want to shop, play games, stream music or watch TV. We’re looking into whether this could be creating problems for consumers and the businesses that want to reach people through their phones.
“Our ongoing work into big tech has already uncovered some worrying trends and we know consumers and businesses could be harmed if they go unchecked. That’s why we’re pressing on with launching this study now, while we are setting up the new Digital Markets Unit, so we can hit the ground running by using the results of this work to shape future plans.”
The European Union also unveiled its own proposals for clipping the wings of big tech last year — presenting its Digital Markets Act plan in December which will apply a single set of operational rules to so-called “gatekeeper” platforms operating across the EU.
The clear trend in Europe on digital competition is toward increasing oversight and regulation of the largest platforms — in the hopes that antitrust authorities can impose measures that will help smaller players thrive.
Critics might say that’s just playing into the tech giants’ hands, though — because it’s fiddling around the edges when more radical intervention (break ups) are what’s really needed to reboot captured markets.
Apple and Google were contacted for comment on the CMA’s market study.
A Google spokesperson said: “Android provides people with more choice than any other mobile platform in deciding which apps they use, and enables thousands of developers and manufacturers to build successful businesses. We welcome the CMA’s efforts to understand the details and differences between platforms before designing new rules.”
According to Google, the Android App Economy generated £2.8BN in revenue for UK developers last year, which it claims supported 240,000 jobs across the country — citing a Public First report that it commissioned.
The tech giant also pointed to operational changes it has already made in Europe, following antitrust interventions by the European Commission — such as adding a choice screen to Android where users can pick from a list of alternative search engines.
Earlier this month it agreed to shift the format underlying that choice screen from an unpopular auction model to free participation.
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