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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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India’s Uolo raises $22.5M to bring edtech to the masses • TechCrunch

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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.

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Oh no, they added NFTs to Winamp • TechCrunch

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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.

Image Credits: Winamp

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.

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6 extremely online books to gift your most internet-obsessed friends • TechCrunch

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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

Image Credits: Macmillan

“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

Image Credits: Macmillan

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

Image Credits: Running Press

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

Image Credits: Harper Collins

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

Image Credits: Workman

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

Image Credits: Riverhead Books

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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