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Google & Facebook fed ad dollars to child porn discovery apps – TechCrunch

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Google has scrambled to remove third-party apps that led users to child porn sharing groups on WhatsApp in the wake of TechCrunch’s report about the problem last week. We contacted Google with the name of one of these apps and evidence that it and others offered links to WhatsApp groups for sharing child exploitation imagery. Following publication of our article, Google removed from the Google Play store that app and at least five like it. Several of these apps had more than 100,000 downloads, and they’re still functional on devices that already downloaded them.

A screenshot from earlier this month of now-banned child exploitation groups on WhatsApp . Phone numbers and photos redacted

WhatsApp failed to adequately police its platform, confirming to TechCrunch that it’s only moderated by its own 300 employees and not Facebook’s 20,000 dedicated security and moderation staffers. It’s clear that scalable and efficient artificial intelligence systems are not up to the task of protecting the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp community, and companies like Facebook must invest more in unscalable human investigators.

But now, new research provided exclusively to TechCrunch by anti-harassment algorithm startup AntiToxin shows that these removed apps that hosted links to child porn sharing rings on WhatsApp were supported with ads run by Google and Facebook’s ad networks. AntiToxin found six of these apps ran Google AdMob, one ran Google Firebase, two ran Facebook Audience Network and one ran StartApp. These ad networks earned a cut of brands’ marketing spend while allowing the apps to monetize and sustain their operations by hosting ads for Amazon, Microsoft, Motorola, Sprint, Sprite, Western Union, Dyson, DJI, Gett, Yandex Music, Q Link Wireless, Tik Tok and more.

The situation reveals that tech giants aren’t just failing to spot offensive content in their own apps, but also in third-party apps that host their ads and that earn them money. While these apps like “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio let people discover benign links to WhatsApp groups for sharing legal content and discussing topics like business or sports, TechCrunch found they also hosted links with titles such as “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” that led to WhatsApp groups with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for “child pornography.”

In a video provided by AntiToxin seen below, the app “Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio” that ran Google AdMob is shown displaying an interstitial ad for Q Link Wireless before providing WhatsApp group search results for “child.” A group described as “Child nude FBI POLICE” is surfaced, and when the invite link is clicked, it opens within WhatsApp to a group used for sharing child exploitation imagery. (No illegal imagery is shown in this video or article. TechCrunch has omitted the end of the video that showed a URL for an illegal group and the phone numbers of its members.)

Another video shows the app “Group Link For whatsapp by Video Status Zone” that ran Google AdMob and Facebook Audience Network displaying a link to a WhatsApp group described as “only cp video.” When tapped, the app first surfaces an interstitial ad for Amazon Photos before revealing a button for opening the group within WhatsApp. These videos show how alarmingly easy it was for people to find illegal content sharing groups on WhatsApp, even without WhatsApp’s help.

Zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero illegal content

In response, a Google spokesperson tells me that these group discovery apps violated its content policies and it’s continuing to look for more like them to ban. When they’re identified and removed from Google Play, it also suspends their access to its ad networks. However, it refused to disclose how much money these apps earned and whether it would refund the advertisers. The company provided this statement:

Google has a zero tolerance approach to child sexual abuse material and we’ve invested in technology, teams and partnerships with groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to tackle this issue for more than two decades. If we identify an app promoting this kind of material that our systems haven’t already blocked, we report it to the relevant authorities and remove it from our platform. These policies apply to apps listed in the Play store as well as apps that use Google’s advertising services.

App Developer Ad Network Estimated Installs   Last Day Ranked
Unlimited Whats Groups Without Limit Group links   Jack Rehan Google AdMob 200,000 12/18/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp NirmalaAppzTech Google AdMob 127,000 12/18/2018
Group Invite For Whatsapp Villainsbrain Google Firebase 126,000 12/18/2018
Public Group for WhatsApp Bit-Build Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network   86,000 12/18/2018
Group links for Whats – Find Friends for Whats Lisa Studio Google AdMob 54,000 12/19/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp 2019 Natalie Pack Google AdMob 3,000 12/20/2018
Group Link For whatsapp Video Status Zone   Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network 97,000 11/13/2018
Group Links For Whatsapp – Free Joining Developers.pk StartAppSDK 29,000 12/5/2018

Facebook, meanwhile, blamed Google Play, saying the apps’ eligibility for its Facebook Audience Network ads was tied to their availability on Google Play and that the apps were removed from FAN when booted from the Android app store. The company was more forthcoming, telling TechCrunch it will refund advertisers whose promotions appeared on these abhorrent apps. It’s also pulling Audience Network from all apps that let users discover WhatsApp Groups.

A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch that “Audience Network monetization eligibility is closely tied to app store (in this case Google) review. We removed [Public Group for WhatsApp by Bit-Build] when Google did – it is not currently monetizing on Audience Network. Our policies are on our website and out of abundance of caution we’re ensuring Audience Network does not support any group invite link apps. This app earned very little revenue (less than $500), which we are refunding to all impacted advertisers.” WhatsApp has already banned all the illegal groups TechCrunch reported on last week.

Facebook also provided this statement about WhatsApp’s stance on illegal imagery sharing groups and third-party apps for finding them:

WhatsApp does not provide a search function for people or groups – nor does WhatsApp encourage publication of invite links to private groups. WhatsApp regularly engages with Google and Apple to enforce their terms of service on apps that attempt to encourage abuse on WhatsApp. Following the reports earlier this week, WhatsApp asked Google to remove all known group link sharing apps. When apps are removed from Google Play store, they are also removed from Audience Network.

An app with links for discovering illegal WhatsApp Groups runs an ad for Amazon Photos

Israeli NGOs Netivei Reshet and Screen Savers worked with AntiToxin to provide a report published by TechCrunch about the wide extent of child exploitation imagery they found on WhatsApp. Facebook and WhatsApp are still waiting on the groups to work with Israeli police to provide their full research so WhatsApp can delete illegal groups they discovered and terminate user accounts that joined them.

AntiToxin develops technologies for protecting online network harassment, bullying, shaming, predatory behavior and sexually explicit activity. It was co-founded by Zohar Levkovitz, who sold Amobee to SingTel for $400 million, and Ron Porat, who was the CEO of ad-blocker Shine. [Disclosure: The company also employs Roi Carthy, who contributed to TechCrunch from 2007 to 2012.] “Online toxicity is at unprecedented levels, at unprecedented scale, with unprecedented risks for children, which is why completely new thinking has to be applied to technology solutions that help parents keep their children safe,” Levkovitz tells me. The company is pushing Apple to remove WhatsApp from the App Store until the problems are fixed, citing how Apple temporarily suspended Tumblr due to child pornography.

Ad networks must be monitored

Encryption has proven an impediment to WhatsApp preventing the spread of child exploitation imagery. WhatsApp can’t see what is shared inside of group chats. Instead, it has to rely on the few pieces of public and unencrypted data, such as group names and profile photos plus their members’ profile photos, looking for suspicious names or illegal images. The company matches those images to a PhotoDNA database of known child exploitation photos to administer bans, and has human moderators investigate if seemingly illegal images aren’t already on file. It then reports its findings to law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Strong encryption is important for protecting privacy and political dissent, but also thwarts some detection of illegal content and thereby necessitates more manual moderation.

With just 300 total employees and only a subset working on security or content moderation, WhatsApp seems understaffed to manage such a large user base. It’s tried to depend on AI to safeguard its community. However, that technology can’t yet perform the nuanced investigations necessary to combat exploitation. WhatsApp runs semi-independently of Facebook, but could hire more moderators to investigate group discovery apps that lead to child pornography if Facebook allocated more resources to its acquisition.

WhatsApp group discovery apps featured Adult sections that contained links to child exploitation imagery groupsGoogle and Facebook, with their vast headcounts and profit margins, are neglecting to properly police who hosts their ad networks. The companies have sought to earn extra revenue by powering ads on other apps, yet failed to assume the necessary responsibility to ensure those apps aren’t facilitating crimes. Stricter examinations of in-app content should be administered before an app is accepted to app stores or ad networks, and periodically once they’re running. And when automated systems can’t be deployed, as can be the case with policing third-party apps, human staffers should be assigned despite the cost.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that social networks and ad networks that profit off other people’s content can’t be low-maintenance cash cows. Companies should invest ample money and labor into safeguarding any property they run or monetize, even if it makes the opportunities less lucrative. The strip-mining of the internet without regard for consequences must end.

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Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa – TechCrunch

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Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.

The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.

Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.

Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.

“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.

Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”

Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”

“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”

“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”

Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.

Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.

Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.

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Ahead of a February event, Samsung teases Galaxy S/Note merger – TechCrunch

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Last summer, Samsung announced that – for the first time in a decade – it wouldn’t be releasing a new Note. The future of the well-loved phablet was a big, open question, as the hardware giant acknowledged a shift in focus to foldables, a form factor it felt was finally ready for a truly mainstream push.

Further muddying the waters is the Galaxy S line – Samsung’s primary flagship, which has steadily been blurring the line separating itself from the Note. “Instead of unveiling a new Galaxy Note this time around,” the company’s president wrote at the time, “we will further broaden beloved Note features to more Samsung Galaxy devices.”

That’s meant a fairly steady increase in the S series’ screen sizes over the years, culminating with the addition of S-Pen functionality for the S21 Ultra last January. In August, the company also brought its proprietary stylus to the Galaxy Fold line leaving some wondering whether the Note was quietly being phased out.

Coming fresh off CES and staring down the face of MWC, we find ourselves entering Unpacked territory – the time of year when the company announces the latest additions to the S series. Roh is back with another somewhat vaguely worded post that celebrates the life of the Note’s life, pointing out how its 5.3-inch display caused a minor stir back in 2011. It seems quaint now, though it’s worth pointing out for those who weren’t at the IFA unveiling, that big screens meant much larger and thicker devices than they do now.

The post strongly suggests a proper merging of the two flagships to make more room for its foldables.

“With every fresh evolution of Samsung Galaxy devices, we have introduced features that redefine the entire mobile category,” the executive writes. “And we’re about to rewrite the rules of industry once again. At Unpacked in February 2022, we’ll introduce you to the most noteworthy S series [emphasis added by TC] device we’ve ever created. The next generation of Galaxy S is here, bringing together the greatest experiences of our Samsung Galaxy into one ultimate device.”

“Noteworthy” could mean a lot of things in this context. The most obvious seems to be an S22 Ultra becoming the S22 Note. Does that mean a proper stylus slot? Could we be seeing further S Pen integration across the lines? I’d say most likely not to that one, if only because the carefully worded post uses the singular “noteworthy device.” There are still some big questions in the lead up to the event – which may or may not be answered early, given the frequency of leaks surrounding these devices. Also on-tap for the line are improved night/low-light photos and a more sustainable design, which has become a priority for the company in recent years.

Samsung is once again betting that consumer excitement and brand loyalty will be enough to get users on-board, sight unseen as it gets set to open reservations for the new smartphone and an unnamed Galaxy tablet tomorrow.

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a16z, Avenir and Google back South African mobile games publisher Carry1st in $20M round – TechCrunch

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Carry1st, a South African publisher of social games and interactive content across Africa, has raised a $20 million Series A extension led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). This is a16z’s first investment in an Africa-headquartered company (the firm has previously invested in Branch and Zipline, companies with some of its operations in Africa but headquartered in the U.S).

Carry1st also received investments from Avenir and Google; it’s the latter’s second check from its Africa Investment Fund.

A couple of prominent individual investors, including Nas and the founders of Chipper Cash, Sky Mavis and Yield Guild Games, took part.

The round — which is an extension of the Series A Carry1st raised last May from Riot Games, Konvoy Ventures, Raine Ventures and TTV Capital — also saw the same investors double down on their investments in the company. 

Andreessen Horowitz general partners David Haber and Jonathan Lai will join Carry1st’s board as observers. 

Cordel Robbin-Coker, Lucy Hoffman and Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu founded Carry1st in 2018. The South Africa-based company, which currently has a team of 37 people across 18 countries, wants to use this additional capital to scale interactive content across Africa.

The company started as a game studio where it conceptualized, developed (from system designs to artwork and engineering), and launched mobile games. Over time, it switched to a hybrid model, adopting a publishing role and handling distribution, marketing and operations.

Carry1st co-founder and chief executive Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch that Carry1st has mainly focused on its publishing arm since it went hybrid.

The three-year-old company has signed publishing deals for seven games from six studios globally, including Tilting Point, publisher of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, which Carry1st recently launched in Africa. Others include CrazyLabs and Sweden’s Raketspel, a studio with over 120 million downloads across its portfolio.

Carry1st said it provides a full-stack publishing solution, handling user acquisition, live operations, community management and monetization for its partners.

“We have a full-suite service that starts with distribution and partnerships. We help them create bespoke marketing materials from short-form advertising videos to statics, and we customize their content to resonate with individuals in different countries,” said Robbin-Coker.

“And then we operate the game and we also monetize. So we’ve built out our monetization engine to allow users to be able to pay for content that they want more easily across Africa.”

It also enhances monetization in the region through its embedded payments solutions, where customers can pay via a range of local payment options, including bank transfers, crypto and mobile money.

L-R: Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu, Lucy Hoffman and Cordel Robbin-Coker

Shortly after closing its Series A round, Carry1st launched its online marketplace for virtual goods. On this marketplace, called Carry1st Shop, users of a Carry1st game can purchase virtual goods such as airtime, mobile data, entertainment vouchers, grocery store vouchers and gaming currency.

Games revenue has increased 90% month-on-month since the second half of last year, the company said. It’s not unexpected considering the astonishing growth of games in terms of quantity and revenue (gaming apps accounted for nearly 70% of all App Store revenue last year) on both Apple and Google stores since the pandemic.

The company’s online marketplace is noticing even faster growth, said Robbin-Coker, especially among users in South Africa and Nigeria.

Carry1st will use this funding to expand its content portfolio, grow its product and engineering teams, and obtain “tens of millions” of new users on the back of this revenue growth in its games and marketplace products.

In a statement, the company said it intends to acquire more users by expanding into game co-development with studios. It is also eyeing the possibility of developing infrastructure to support play-to-earn gaming in Africa, thus venturing into web3.

Cryptocurrency tokens such as SLP, AXS and MANA are used in play-to-earn games. They can be withdrawn to a crypto wallet and traded for another cryptocurrency like bitcoin or ultimately sold for fiat cash to be used in the real world. Carry1st wants to create on- and off-ramps (platforms that convert fiat into crypto and back) and accept crypto at point-of-sale in its marketplace.

“When we think about Carry1st, we want to be the leading consumer internet company in the region. And we think that the best kind of wedge would be able to do that is a combination of gaming and micropayments and online commerce,” the CEO said.

“These industries are being pretty significantly disrupted or augmented with web3 and crypto. And as more gaming content starts to integrate with NFTs and cryptocurrencies, we think there’s a really big opportunity to partner with those studios the same way we partner with free-to-play studios.”

Africa is the next major growth market for gaming globally. The rapid tech adoption from its 1.1 billion millennials and GenZs is a significant driver for this. Carry1st released a report last year with Newzoo showing that the number of games in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 275% in the next decade. Gaming revenues are projected to see a 728% increase in the same period.

These stats present a much bigger addressable market than what Carry1st envisioned when it launched four years ago. And with the company’s converging at the intersection of gaming, fintech and web3, there is a broader set of opportunities (which we can see in other emerging markets) to go after in Africa. It’s one factor that piqued a16z’s interest in the company.

“We are delighted to be making our first investment in an Africa-headquartered company in Carry1st, a next-generation mobile games and fintech platform,” Haber said in a statement. “We see immense opportunity for the company to mirror outstanding successes we’ve seen in markets like India, China, and Southeast Asia. We couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with founders Cordel, Lucy, Tino, and the Carry1st team on their mission to build the Garena of Africa.”

Carry1st was seemingly intentional about the investors it brought into this round, especially as it looks to move deep in gaming, web3 and fintech across Africa.

As one of the largest crypto-centric funds, at over $3 billion, a16z brings unmatched expertise in gaming and web3. Google, via its products and phones, will help Carry1st deepen penetration and engagement in Africa. At the same time, Avenir continues to make a big push in African fintech following its big-sized check in Flutterwave.

As for the individual investors, Nas has been fairly prolific with his crypto investments, and Axie Infinity founders own the world’s biggest web3 gaming company.

“It’s a heavyweight group. We’re excited, and we think that their combination will be beneficial for us. Hopefully, it’s a sign that we’re on the right track and this helps drive strategic partnerships for us in the future,” said Robbin-Coker.

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