Mark Zuckerberg: “The future is private”. Sundar Pichai: ~The present is private~. While both CEO’s made protecting user data a central theme of their conference keynotes this month, Facebook’s product updates were mostly vague vaporware while Google’s were either ready to ship or ready to demo. The contrast highlights the divergence in strategy between the two tech giants.
For Facebook, privacy is a talking point meant to boost confidence in sharing, deter regulators, and repair its battered image. For Google, privacy is functional, going hand-in-hand with on-device data processing to make features faster and more widely accessible.
Everyone wants tech to be more private, but we must discern between promises and delivery. Like “mobile”, “on-demand”, “AI”, and “blockchain” before it, “privacy” can’t be taken at face value. We deserve improvements to the core of how our software and hardware work, not cosmetic add-ons and instantiations no one is asking for.
At Facebook’s F8 last week, we heard from Zuckerberg about how “Privacy gives us the freedom to be ourselves” and he reiterated how that would happen through ephemerality and secure data storage. He said Messenger and Instagram Direct will become encrypted…eventually…which Zuckerberg had already announced in January and detailed in March. We didn’t get the Clear History feature that Zuckerberg made the privacy centerpiece of his 2018 conference, or anything about the Data Transfer Project that’s been silent for the 10 months since it’s reveal.
What users did get was a clumsy joke from Zuckerberg about how “I get that a lot of people aren’t sure that we’re serious about this. I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now to put it lightly. But I’m committed to doing this well.” No one laughed. At least he admitted that “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
But it shouldn’t have to. Facebook made its first massive privacy mistake in 2007 with Beacon, which quietly relayed your off-site ecommerce and web activity to your friends. It’s had 12 years, a deal with the FTC promising to improve, countless screwups and apologies, the democracy-shaking Cambridge Analytica scandal, and hours of being grilled by congress to get serious about the problem. That makes it clear that if “the future is private”, then the past wasn’t. Facebook is too late here to receive the benefit of the doubt.
At Google’s I/O, we saw demos from Pichai showing how “our work on privacy and security is never done. And we want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” Instead of waiting to fall so far behind that users demand more privacy, Google has been steadily working on it for the past decade since it introduced Chrome incognito mode. It’s changed directions away from using Gmail content to target ads and allowing any developer to request access to your email, though there are plenty of sins to atone for. Now when the company is hit with scandals, it’s typically over its frightening efficiency as with its cancelled Project Maven AI military tech, not its creepiness.
Google made more progress on privacy in low-key updates in the runup to I/O than Facebook did on stage. In the past month it launched the ability to use your Android device as a physical security key, and a new auto-delete feature rolling out in the coming weeks that erases your web and app activity after 3 or 18 months. Then in its keynote today, it published “privacy commitments” for Made By Google products like Nest detailing exactly how they use your data and your control over that. For example, the new Nest Home Max does all its Face Match processing on device so facial recognition data isn’t sent to Google. Failing to note there’s a microphone in its Nest security alarm did cause an uproar in February, but the company has already course-corrected
That concept of on-device processing is a hallmark of the new Android 10 Q operating system. Opening in beta to developers today, it comes with almost 50 new security and privacy features like TLS 1.3 support and Mac address randomization. Google Assistant will now be better protected, Pichai told a cheering crowd. “Further advances in deep learning have allowed us to combine and shrink the 100 gigabyte models down to half a gigabyte — small enough to bring it onto mobile devices.” This makes Assistant not only more private, but fast enough that it’s quicker to navigate your phone by voice than touch. Here, privacy and utility intertwine.
The result is that Google can listen to video chats and caption them for you in real-time, transcribe in-person conversations, or relay aloud your typed responses to a phone call without transmitting audio data to the cloud. That could be a huge help if you’re hearing or vision impaired, or just have your hands full. A lot of the new Assistant features coming to Google Pixel phones this year will even work in Airplane mode. Pichai says that “Gboard is already using federated learning to improve next word prediction, as well as emoji prediction across 10s of millions of devices” by using on-phone processing so only improvements to Google’s AI are sent to the company, not what you typed.
Google’s senior director of Android Stephanie Cuthbertson hammered the idea home, noting that “On device machine learning powers everything from these incredible breakthroughs like Live Captions to helpful everyday features like Smart Reply. And it does this with no user input ever leaving the phone, all of which protects user privacy.” Apple pioneered much of the on-device processing, and many Google features still rely on cloud computing, but it’s swiftly progressing.
When Google does make privacy announcements about things that aren’t about to ship, they’re significant and will be worth the wait. Chrome will implement anti-fingerprinting tech and change cookies to be more private so only the site that created them can use them. And Incognito Mode will soon come to the Google Maps and Search apps.
Pichai didn’t have to rely on grand proclamations, cringey jokes, or imaginary product changes to get his message across. Privacy isn’t just a means to an end for Google. It’s not a PR strategy. And it’s not some theoretical part of tomorrow like it is for Zuckerberg and Facebook. It’s now a natural part of building user-first technology…after 20 years of more cavalier attitudes towards data. That new approach is why the company dedicated to organizing the world’s information has been getting so little backlash lately.
With privacy, it’s all about show, don’t tell.
India’s Uolo raises $22.5M to bring edtech to the masses • TechCrunch
Uolo, an Indian edtech platform that works with private K-12 schools to offer online learning programs to middle and low-income families, has raised $22.5 million in a funding round led by UAE-headquartered VC fund Winter Capital.
The vast majority of edtech startups operate in a business-to-consumer model and spend on ads to reach the parents and guardians of the students.
Uolo says it is reducing that cost by operating in a business-to-business-to-consumer model, working with private schools to let them offer online learning programs to their students and levy the charges as part of the school fees. The startup’s programs are also designed in tandem with the curricula of the partnered schools, making it easier for students to double down on learning the same lessons.
The Gurugram-based startup develops and provides tailor-made learning programs in coding and English speaking. Students can access these programs on their parents’ smartphones.
“We take edtech to the masses of India. And when we do that, the idea is that you make it cheap enough, affordable enough for people to be able to take it for their children,” said Pallav Pandey, chief executive of Uolo, in an interview with TechCrunch.
He said that the startup is able to provide its offerings to students at much more affordable prices.
Schools tying up with Uolo get an ERP platform called the Uolo School Platform for free. It works as a unified platform where schools can access fee management, report card management and attendance management on a single dashboard.
The ERP platform functions as an entry gate for Uolo as it allows the startup to create an ecosystem once schools start using it. This encourages parents or guardians to use the app to receive communications directly from schools — instead of using typical communication channels such as WhatsApp groups.
“What we have been able to do is get schools and students on one end of the platform, so now we need to get digital learning to flow through us,” Pandey said.
Founded in September 2020 by Pandey and his brother Ankur, Uolo has partnered with more than 8,500 schools across India and currently reaches 3.7 million students.
The $22.5 million funding has come through an equity-debt mix Series A round, seeing participation from Uolo’s existing investors Blume Ventures and new Dubai-based fund Morphosis Venture Capital — alongside Winter Capital. Although exact details of the equity and debt percentage involved were not disclosed, Pandey told TechCrunch that the debt element was in the form of optionally convertible debentures that would convert into equity over time.
The startup, which employs about 350 individuals, plans to utilize the investment to widen its reach to 50,000 schools across India over the next four years and expand its learning programs with courses across STEAM subjects in the coming months. For the latter part, it is looking to partner with education companies as well as people and entities developing high-quality content.
“The first wave of edtech companies in India have proven consumer interest in online education. However, they lacked a cost-effective distribution. We believe that there will be a new generation of edtech companies capable of building organic, low-cost distribution, allowing students to study at $10 per year rather than $10 per hour. Our investment in Uolo is based on our confidence in this type of company,” said Anton Farlenkov, Managing Director of Winter Capital, in a prepared statement.
Oh no, they added NFTs to Winamp • TechCrunch
Winamp version 5.9.1 is here, rejoice! The venerable — nay, aged — but reliable media player has been receiving sporadic updates over the last couple decades, but little truly new functionality has appeared (and that’s just fine by us users). But this new version brings an unexpected and thankfully optional feature: NFT playback.
No, this doesn’t just read out the current valuation of your various square avatars; NFT-type tech has been applied to music as well, offering the capability of limited releases of digital tracks the way you might have a limited vinyl run. At least that’s the idea — I don’t think it’s quite caught on, and with the cryptocurrency world currently in disarray, it’s hard to blame anyone for declining to take part in a potentially risky ecosystem.
“Winamp was a key part of the first digital music innovation, when mp3s changed the way we listen and enjoy music. Now we’re supporting the leading edge of the next one, as more and more artists explore web3 and its potential,” said Winamp CEO Alexandre Saboundjian in a press release.
As you may recall, Winamp was purchased by Radionomy in 2014, and in 2018 a new effort was announced to revivify the brand. The idea, Saboundjian told me at the time, was to act as a unifying layer for all the music services out there, so whether you use Apple Music or Spotify or Tidal or all three, you can just open Winamp and select a track or playlist. It opens up in a different interface, though.
That unified experience hasn’t exactly come to pass. In fact the redone app still counts an equalizer among its “coming soon” features. So it’s a little odd to hear that a functioning NFT layer arrived first:
Winamp’s latest version lets music fans link their Metamask wallet via Brave, Chrome, or Firefox to Winamp. It then connects their favorite music NFTs to their tried-and-true player. Winamp supports audio and video files distributed under both the ERC-721and ERC-1155 standards, and is launching this new feature for Ethereum and Polygon/Matic protocols.
To be clear, the fabled new unified player still seems to be a distant prospect. It’s the original, old-school player that’s getting the new feature, alongside a boatload of bug fixes and optimizations. The changes are listed, as they pretty much always have been, in a post on the Winamp forum, followed by ardent thanks from the community and obscure bug reports.
I for one am grateful that this piece of software is still actively maintained. I won’t be using the NFT function, but it’s just one of many things added in 5.9.1, and as soon as the rest of the Winamp users (there are dozens of us!) get around to testing it for me, I’ll go ahead and download it. After all, it really still whips the llama’s ass.
6 extremely online books to gift your most internet-obsessed friends • TechCrunch
I like the internet. There, I said it. I spend my entire day writing about the internet, and then in my leisure time, I read books about how the internet shapes our lives. I might have a work-life balance problem, but I can’t help it. I mean, music journalists still listen to music, right? Chefs still cook at home? So I can enjoy some critical thinking about the internet in my spare time, as a treat. After all, internet culture is just flat out culture at this point, and hey, who doesn’t consume culture?
Should I go outside and touch grass? Probably! But I can touch grass while reading a book, duh. Plus, I’m pretty sure that none of these books mention Elon Musk, so if that’s not a sell for you in this day in age, I don’t know what is.
This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.
“README.txt” by Chelsea Manning
“The free internet at Barnes & Noble is… not fast,” begins Chelsea Manning’s memoir. In the midst of a snowstorm in early 2010, Manning sent over 700,000 classified and sensitive documents to WikiLeaks that she smuggled off of U.S. Army computers while serving as an intelligence analyst. Of course, this is a story we already know, since it’s been in and out of the news for the last twelve years: Manning’s leaks revealed the true nature of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning’s book lets us hear her side of the story: how homophobia and abuse in her childhood home drove her to join the army in the first place; the pain she endured while serving in the army as a then-closeted transgender woman in the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; and how she risked her life to share information that she believed the public desperately needed to access.
Manning’s life is far from ordinary — she’s a famous, highly controversial whistleblower who spent 7 years in prison and publicly transitioned while in custody. But the internet is a surprisingly ordinary through-line in her story (she even describes herself as “extremely online” in the book). Like so many queer people, Manning found solace and community on the internet, where anonymity helped her explore her identity when it wasn’t safe (or legal, in the case of the military at the time) to be herself IRL.
Price: $19 from Amazon
“Everything I Need I Get From You” by Kaitlyn Tiffany
I was never a One Direction stan, but as someone who simply existed on the internet in the early 2010s, I sure felt the influence of those five British boys. No one could escape One Direction at the height of their popularity, and as Kaitlyn Tiffany argues in “Everything I Need I Get From You,” this wasn’t just an era of silly girls screaming their heads off because Harry Styles is cute. As they forged community and manipulated chart numbers together, One Direction fans made it abundantly clear that nothing is more powerful than a highly-coordinated campaign of teenage fans with internet access. Remember when K Pop fans pranked a Tulsa Trump rally with thousands of false registrations? Or just weeks ago, when Taylor Swift fans directed politicians’ attention to the potential antitrust problems at Ticketmaster? Fan culture is ubiquitous on the internet and shapes how we use it — if you disagree, you’re not looking hard enough.
One Direction fandom wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Tiffany writes about the sinister undercurrents of some fandom spaces, including the conspiracy theory of Larry Stylinson, which claims that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were secretly in love but barred by their management from going public. Proponents of this theory crossed… several lines, and Tiffany points out how the way they spread the theory — like convincing each other that the media is spreading fake news to cover up the truth of the affair — mirrors the way that more dire political conspiracies take root. Yikes.
Even if you were never a “directioner,” this book is a deeply engaging read. And, I’m sorry, but is there any song ever written that’s catchier than “What Makes You Beautiful”? You don’t know-oh-oh!
Price: $17 from Bookshop.org
“Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All” by Daniel Dockery
I love Pokémon almost as much as I love the internet. So, naturally, I was delighted to get my hands on a copy of Daniel Dockery’s nonfiction book “Monster Kids,” which chronicles the phenomenon surrounding Pokémon (and by extension, the “monster collecting” genre of media).
While reading “Monster Kids,” I found myself live-texting my friends fun facts that I never knew about Pokémon. My personal favorite bit of trivia is that the Pokémon franchise was initially struggling to catch on in the West, so in an elaborate marketing stunt, Nintendo held an event in Topeka, Kansas called… ToPikachu. At the event, 700 Pikachu plushes were dropped from the air, but that wasn’t all — ten skydivers also descended from an aircraft, then hopped into Pikachu-branded cars and drove away, oozing with style.
This book is full of jaw-dropping anecdotes about the early days of the Pokémon franchise (come on… Topikachu!?), but Dockery unifies these stories to comprehensively explain how the exceptionally-mega-popular video game franchise got to where it is today. And where is it today? Still as mega-popular as ever, and with the same amount of glitches. You still can’t find a Mew under the truck, though.
Price: $16 from Amazon
“She Memes Well” by Quinta Brunson
If you’re not watching “Abbott Elementary,” what are you doing? But before she was the star and showrunner of the ABC sitcom, Quinta Brunson was a meme.
Well, she was more than that. She was a writer and comedian trying to make it in a cut-throat LA industry. But she got her big break when she started posting a series of clips as “the girl who’s never been on a nice date,” playing a character who’s flattered by men doing the bare minimum. Remember “he got money?” That girl is now an Emmy winner.
“She Memes Well” is a series of comedic, yet emotional essays that chart Brunson’s rising star — she writes about her (good and less-good) experiences in the Philly public school system, failed relationships, learning to cook, you name it. Like “Abbott Elementary,” Brunson’s essays are laugh-out-loud funny, yet they also illuminate the systemic barriers that she had to face to become a Philly kid with an Emmy. Go Quinta, and go birds!
Price: $14 from Harper Collins
“How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex” by Samantha Cole
We’re not kidding when we say that sex is what powers innovation on the internet. VICE writer Samantha Cole’s new nonfiction book is proof of that: do you know what a Playboy centerfold and the creation of the JPEG have in common?
I read a galley of Cole’s book while preparing to interview the CEO of OnlyFans at TechCrunch Disrupt. It was a good way to brush up on legal issues impacting sex on the internet, like Section 230 and SESTA/FOSTA — but more than anything, it was just a really interesting read that gave me a much deeper appreciation for the history of the internet and sex. I learned about the stories of internet pioneers like Jennifer Ringley, who’s regarded as either a conceptual artist or the first camgirl, depending on who you ask. Ringley wrote a script that took photos through a webcam in her college dorm and posted them online — this started in 1996, far before streaming live video would have been an option. Ringley didn’t censor private moments in her life, but it wasn’t necessarily a sexual project: just a person living her life. Yet after seven years of meticulously documenting her life, Ringley shut down JenniCam after PayPal updated its guidelines to prohibit nudity.
Ringley’s story is just one fascinating internet artifact retold in Cole’s book. As the title of the book suggests… turns out that sex changed the internet!
Price: $30 from Amazon
“Because Internet” by Gretchen McCulloch
As we watch Twitter fall apart in slow motion, I’m thinking of something I learned in “Because Internet”: linguistic researchers love Twitter! Think about it. How often have we had real-time access to data about how people from all around the world talk and type?
“Because Internet” is a geeky, nerdy academic book, but McCulloch writes in such an entertaining, approachable way that it makes me wish I had taken a linguistics class in college. Then again, your typical intro linguistics class probably doesn’t interrogate the language of memes and the punctuation of texts so seriously. But if you have a friend who is constantly inventing new forms of punctuation to denote sarcasm, this book is a must-gift.
Price: $16 from Bookshop.org
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