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Consumer advocacy groups call on FTC to investigate kids’ apps on Google Play – TechCrunch

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A coalition of 22 consumer and public health advocacy groups, led by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), have today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate and sanction Google for how its Google Play Store markets apps to children. The complaint states that Google features apps designed for very young children in its Play Store’s “Family” section, many of which are violating federal children’s privacy law, exposing kids to inappropriate content and disregarding Google’s own policies by luring kids into making in-app purchases and watching ads.

Google Play ‘Family’ section

Google first introduced its “Designed for Families” program back in 2015, which gives developers of kid-friendly apps meeting certain guidelines additional visibility in the Play Store. This includes a placement in the Family section, where apps are organized by age appropriateness.

To qualify, “Family” apps must abide by specific content policies, Google’s Developer Distribution Agreement and the Designed for Families DDA Addendum. The apps also must meet the Designed for Families program requirements. Legal compliance with federal privacy laws, including COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule), are among the requirements.

COPPA is designed to protect children under the age of 13 by giving parents control over what information sites and apps can collect from their kids.

Above: Google Play store showcases children’s content in its own dedicated sections

COPPA violations

But the new FTC complaint claims that Google is not verifying COPPA compliance when it accepts these apps and, as a result, many are in continual violation of the law.

“Our research revealed a surprising number of privacy violations on Android apps for children, including sharing geolocation with third parties,” said Serge Egelman, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement shared by the group. “Given Google’s assertion that Designed for Families apps must be COPPA compliant, it’s disappointing these violations still abound, even after Google was alerted to the scale of the problem,” he added.

TechCrunch asked the coalition if it had some idea about how many apps were in violation of COPPA, and were told the groups don’t know an exact number.

“From our survey — and more comprehensive analyses like the PET Study — it seems fairly prevalent,” Lindsey Barrett, Staff Attorney at Georgetown’s Institute for Public Representation, told us.

“The PET Study found that 73 percent of the kids apps in the Play store transmitted sensitive data over the internet, and we saw apps sending geolocation without notice and verifiable parental consent, and sending personal information unencrypted,” Barrett said. “Further, under COPPA, children’s PII cannot be used for behavioral advertising. Yet, many of the children’s apps we looked at were sending information to ad networks which say their services should not be used with children’s apps,” she added.

Other harms

The apps also engage in other bad behaviors, like regularly showing ads that are difficult to exit or showing those that require viewing in order to continue the current game, according to the complaint. Some apps pressure kids into making in-app purchases — in one example, the game characters were crying if the kids didn’t buy the locked items, it notes. Others show ads for alcohol and gambling, despite those being barred by Google’s Ad Policy.

Above: disturbing images from TabTale apps

The coalition additionally called out some apps for containing “graphic, sexualized images” like TutoTOONS “Sweet Baby Girl Daycare 4 – Babysitting Fun,” which has more than 10 million downloads. (The game has a part where kids change a baby’s diaper, wipe their diaper area, then rub powder all over the baby’s body.) Others model harmful behavior, like TabTale’s “Crazy Eye Clinic,” which teaches children to clean their eyes with a sharp instrument, and has more than one million downloads. (The game is currently not available on Google Play and its webpage is down.)

The complaint also broadly takes issue with apps that use common SDKs like those from Unity or Flurry (disclosure: Flurry and TechCrunch share a corporate parent) to collect device identifiers from the children’s apps.

“Nearly three-quarters of the apps in the Family section transmit device identifiers to third parties,” reads the complaint. “There is no way for us to know for sure what the device identifiers are used for. Since many of the apps send device identifiers to third parties that specialize in monetizing apps and/or engaging in interest-based (behavioral) advertising, it seems unlikely that this information is being used solely to support internal operations,” it says.

Above: Strawberry Shortcake Puppy Palace was called out for aggressive monetization efforts. Strawberry tells kids to buy things to keep the puppy happy — the implication is if you don’t pay, you’re making puppies sad.

The groups say that Google has been aware of all these problems for some time, but hasn’t taken adequate steps to enforce its criteria for developers. As a result, the consumer advocacy groups are urging the FTC to investigate the Play Store’s practices.

The coalition had previously asked the FTC to investigate developers of children’s apps aimed at preschoolers who were using manipulative advertising. But today’s complaint is focused on Google.

“Google (Alphabet, Inc.) has long engaged in unethical and harmful business practices, especially when it comes to children,” explained Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “And the Federal Trade Commission has for too long ignored this problem, placing both children and their parents at risk over their loss of privacy, and exposing them to a powerful and manipulative marketing apparatus. As one of the world’s leading providers of content for kids online, Google continues to put the enormous profits they make from kids ahead of any concern for their welfare,” Chester said.

Apple was not similarly called out because a similar analysis has not yet been done on its app marketplace, Josh Golin, executive director at CCFC told us. In Google’s case, he explained, two major studies found widespread issues with the Play Store apps for kids. One from Berkeley researchers found widespread COPPA non-compliance; the other, by University of Michigan researchers, found children’s play experience was often completely interrupted and undermined by aggressive marketing tactics.

The complaint comes at a time where there is increased scrutiny as to how tech companies are misusing and abusing consumer data and violating privacy. Kids game have already been the subject of some concern. And this morning, an NYT investigation into Facebook revealed it had shared more of users’ personal data than disclosed with major tech companies, following a year of data scandals.

The issue of data privacy is an industry-wide problem. Tech companies’ failures on this front will likely lead to increased regulation going forward.

Not all the named developers were immediately available to comment this morning. We’ll update if comments are provided. (Update: TutoToons says they removed the inappropriate content from the app after becoming aware of the complaint. They urged parents and child advocacy groups to reach out to them directly in the future.)

Google says it’s taking the complaint seriously. It has removed thousands of apps from its Designed for Families program this year, and rejects a third of applications.

“Parents want their children to be safe online and we work hard to protect them. Apps in our Designed for Families program have to comply with strict policies on content, privacy and advertising, and we take action on any policy violations that we find,” a Google spokesperson says. “We take these issues very seriously and continue to work hard to remove any content that is inappropriately aimed at children from our platform,” they added.

The full complaint is below.

 

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Bumble files to go public – TechCrunch

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The dating and networking service Bumble has filed to go public.

The company, launched by a former co-founder of the IAC-owned Tinder, plans to list its share on the Nasdaq stock exchange, using the ticker symbol “BMBL.” Bumble’s planned IPO was first reported in December.

Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd was on the founding team at Tinder before starting Bumble. She filed suit against Tinder for sexual harassment and discrimination, which was at least somewhat inspirational in her quest to build a dating app that put women in the driver’s seat.

In 2019, Wolfe Herd took the helm of MagicLab, renamed to Bumble Group, in a $3 billion deal with Blackstone, replacing Badoo founder and CEO Andrey Andreev following a harassment scandal at the firm.

The company is targeting the public markets at a particularly heady time for new offerings, with investors embracing venture-backed IPOs throughout late 2020 and the start of 2021. Previously privately held companies like Airbnb, Affirm, and others have seen their fortunes soar on the back of prices that public investors are willing to pay, perhaps inducing more IPO filings than the market might have otherwise seen.

You can read its IPO filing here. TechCrunch will have its usual tear-down of the document later today, but we have pulled some top-line numbers for you to kick off your own research.

But before we do, the company’s board makeup, namely that it is over 70% women is already drawing plaudits. Now, into its numbers.

Inside Bumble’s IPO filing

Let’s consider Bumble from three perspectives: Usage, financial results, and ownership.

On the usage front, Bumble is popular, as you would imagine a dating would have to be to reach the scale required to go public. The company claims 42 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of Q3 2020 — many companies will try to get public on the strength of their third-quarter results from 2020, as it takes time to close Q4 and the full calendar year.

Those 42 million MAUs translated into 2.4 million total paying users through the first nine months of 2020; the percent, then, of paying users to MAUs is not 2.4 million divided by 42, but a smaller fraction.

Turning to the numbers, recall that Bumble sold a majority of itself a few years back. We bring that up as Bumble’s financial results are complicated thanks to its ownership structure.

After the IPO, Bumble Inc. will “be a holding company, and its sole material asset will be a controlling equity interest in Bumble Holdings,” per the S-1 filing. So, how is Bumble Holdings doing?

Medium? Doing the sums ourselves as the company’s S- 1 is fraught with accounting nuances, in the first nine months of 2019, Bumble managed the following:

  • Revenues of $362.6 million
  • Net income of $68.6 million

And then, combining two columns to provide a similar set of results for the same period of 2020, Bumble recorded:

  • Revenues of $416.6 million
  • Net income of -$116.7 million

For those following along, we’re using the “Net (loss) earnings” line, for profitability, and not the “Net (loss) earnings attributable to owners / shareholders” as that would require even more explanation and we’re keeping it simple in this first look.

While Bumble saw modest growth in 2020 through Q3 and a sharp swing to losses on a GAAP basis, the company’s adjusted profitability grew over the same time period. The company’s adjusted EBITDA, a very non-GAAP metric, expanded from $80.0 million in the first three quarters of 2019 to $108.3 million in the same period of 2020.

While we are generally willing to allow quickly-growing companies some leniency when it comes to adjusted metrics, the gap between Bumble’s GAAP losses and its EBITDA results is a stress-test of our compassion. Bumble also swung from free cash flow positivity during the first nine months of 2019 to the first quarters of 2020.

If you extrapolate Bumble’s Q1, Q2, and Q3 revenue to a full-year number, the company could manage $555.5 million in 2020 revenues. Even at a modest software-ish multiple, the company would be worth more than the $3 billion figure that we discussed before.

However, its sharp unprofitability in 2020 could damper its eventual valuation. More as we dig more deeply into the filing.

Finally, on the ownership question the company’s filing is surprisingly denuded of data. Its principal shareholder section looks like this:

When we know more, we’ll share more. Until then, happy S-1 reading.

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Samsung unveils Galaxy S21 line – TechCrunch

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Samsung lowers prices with its latest Galaxy S phones, Google completes its Fitbit acquisition and Beyond Meat is coming to Taco Bell. This is your Daily Crunch for January 14, 2021.

The big story: Samsung unveils Galaxy S21 line

Samsung’s new line of phones includes the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra, priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, an across-the-board price cut of $200. Brian Heater writes that the Ultra, in particular, “has one very important trick up its sleeve” — namely compatibility with the S Pen.

All three phones are available for pre-order now and start shipping on January 29.

In addition, Samsung announced the Galaxy Buds Pro, which cost $199 and come with a stated five hours of battery life. And it’s launching a Bluetooth locator, dubbed the Galaxy SmartTag.

The tech giants

Google’s Fitbit acquisition is official — This follows regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the pond.

Amazon’s Ring Neighbors app exposed users’ precise locations and home addresses — The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app.

Beyond Meat shares soar after inking deal with Taco Bell on new menu items — Taco Bell announced that it would work with Beyond Meat to come up with new menu items due to be tested in the next year.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Medium acquires social book reading app Glose — Glose has been building iOS, Android and web apps that let you buy, download and read books on your devices.

Tiger Global is raising a new $3.75B venture fund, one year after closing its last — Despite being named Tiger Private Investment Partners XIV, this is actually the firm’s thirteenth fund.

Carbyne raises $25M for a next-generation platform to improve emergency 911 responses — The Israeli startup aims to help emergency services get more complete information about callers, and to provide additional telemedicine services.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Five consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies — Investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups.

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups — This is the late-2020, early-2021 IPO market in action.

Twelve ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share — Founders seeking non-dilutive funding: start here.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records — The so-called “Vaccination Credential Initiative” includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and tech industries.

2020 was one of the warmest years in history and indicates mounting risks of climate change — 2020 either edged out or came in just behind 2016 as the warmest year in recorded history, according to data from U.S. government agencies.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Medium acquires social book reading app Glose – TechCrunch

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Medium is acquiring Paris-based startup Glose for an undisclosed amount. Glose has been building iOS, Android and web apps that let you buy, download and read books on your devices.

The company has turned reading into a multiplayer experience as you can build a bookshelf, share notes with your followers and start conversations in the margins. Sure, there are social platforms that let you talk about books, such as Goodreads. But Glose’s differentiating point is that the social features are intrinsically linked with the reading features — those aren’t two separate platforms. There are also some gamification features that help you stay motivated as you read difficult books — you get streak rewards for instance.

In many ways, Glose’s one-tap highlighting and commenting features are reminiscent of Medium’s features on this front. You can highlight text in any reading app on your phone or tablet but you can’t do much with it.

More recently, Glose has launched a separate service called Glose Education. As the name suggests, that version is tailored for universities and high schools. Teachers can hand out assignments and you can read a book as a group.

Over 1 million people have used Glose and 25 universities have signed up to Glose Education, including Stanford and Columbia University.

But Glose isn’t just a software play. The company has also put together a comprehensive book store. The company has partnered with 20,000 publishers so that you can buy ebooks directly from the app.

And if you are studying Virginia Wolf this semester, Glose also provides hundreds of thousands of public domain books for free. Glose also supports audio books.

This is by far the most interesting part as Medium now plans to expand beyond articles and blogs. While Glose is sticking around for now, Medium also plans to integrate ebooks and audio books to its service.

It’s a smart move as many prolific bloggers are also book writers. Right now, they write a blog post on Medium and link to a third-party site if you want to buy their books. Having the ability to host everything written by an author is a better experience for both content creators and readers.

“We’re impressed not only by Glose’s reading products and technology, but also by their experience in partnering with book authors and publishers,” Medium CEO Ev Williams said in a statement. “Books are a means of exploring an idea, a way to go deeper. The vast majority of the world’s ideas are stored in books and journals, yet are hardly searchable nor shareable. With Glose, we want to improve that experience within Medium’s large network of engaged readers and writers. We look forward to working with the Glose team on partnering with publishers to help authors reach more readers.”

The Glose team will remain in Paris, which means that Medium is opening its first office outside of the U.S. Glose will continue to honor its partnerships with authors, publishers, schools and institutions.

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