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Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned – TechCrunch

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Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower-growth services.

This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.

Hunting spammers

I began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing, where for $46 to $126 per month, it promised to score me 1,000 to 2,500 Instagram followers.

Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.

You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.

That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the “tragedy of the commons” of our attention.

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, Social Sensational, SocialFuse, We Grow Social, IG Wildfire and Gramflare. TrendBee and Gramflare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow and Servantify.

Knowingly poisoning the well

I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.

What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service,” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability,” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance,” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.


EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Aleksandr [last name redacted] says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says, “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”

Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said, “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me, “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.

Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people… and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam,” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”

Instagram finally shuts down the spammers

In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:

Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.

Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.

But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers,” “boost your Instagram followers,” “real followers,” “grow your engagement,” “get verified,” “engagement automation” and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.

That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies that can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.

Kicking these services off Instagram is an important step, but the company must be more proactive. Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.

To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.

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Mobile

Apple and Google’s best apps of the year, Amazon Appstore fails, Twitter’s new CEO – TechCrunch

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps offers a way to keep up with this fast-moving industry in one place with the latest from the world of apps, including news, updates, startup fundings, mergers and acquisitions, and suggestions about new apps and games to try, too.

Do you want This Week in Apps in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters

Apple announced its top apps and games of 2021

Image Credits: Apple

Apple this week released its anticipated annual list of the best apps and games of the year across iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV and Apple Watch. This year, children’s app maker Toca Boca won iPhone App of the Year for “Toca Life World,” and Riot Games’ “League of Legends: Wild Rift” was the iPhone Game of the Year. Other winners included iPad App of the Year “LumaFusion” from LumaTouch; iPad Game of the Year “MARVEL Future Revolution” from Netmarble; Mac App of the Year “Craft,” from Luki Labs Limited; Mac Game of the Year “Myst,” from Cyan; Apple TV App of the Year “DAZN,” from DAZN Group; Apple TV Game of the Year “Space Marshals 3,” from Pixelbite; Apple Watch App of the Year “Carrot Weather,” from Grailr; and the Apple Arcade Game of the Year: “Fantasian,” from Mistwalker.

What’s interesting about this year’s group of winners is the subtle statement Apple is making with its editorial picks. For instance, Toca Boca — which has produced more than 40 kids’ apps to date and celebrated its 10-year anniversary this year — is a reminder that developers are building long-term businesses on the App Store and Apple helped play a role in supporting that success. Other winners are those that compete with Apple’s own first-party apps, including Carrot Weather (which also uses weather data from Apple-owned Dark Sky), Pages rival Craft and iMovie competitor LumaFusion.

These are not necessarily coincidences. 2021 was a year that’s seen much backlash and upheaval for the App Store, which has faced increased regulatory scrutiny, new legislation in global markets and various lawsuits over the App Store’s commission-based business model — including the ongoing one with Epic Games, now under appeal. As a result, Apple has adjusted and clarified its policies and even reduced its commissions in some cases, as dictated by the market demands and settlement agreements. But despite all these changes, the winning lineup reminds us that the quality of the apps on the App Store remains high.

Apple also released its year-end list of the most-downloaded apps, led by TikTok (iPhone’s top free app), Procreate Pocket (iPhone and iPad’s top paid app), Among Us! (iPhone and iPad’s top free game), Minecraft (iPhone and iPad’s top paid game), YouTube (iPad’s top free app) and The Oregon Trail (top Apple Arcade app.) The full lineup is here.

Google Play introduced its “Best of 2021” app awards, too

Image Credits: Google

Google Play also this week announced its own year-end list of the best apps and games on Google Play. This year, Google expanded its awards lineup to include apps and games on tablets, Wear OS and Google TV. Its U.S. winners included meditation app Balance as its app of the year and top game Pokémon UNITE. Meanwhile, Paramount+ and Garena Free Fire MAX won the user’s choice awards.

In 2020, Google’s award winners had reflected a world undergoing a pandemic, where stressed users had turned to apps and soothing games to relax — like top sleep app Loóna, which was last year’s “Best App,” or escapist games like winner Genshin Impact.

But with the early days of the pandemic now behind us, some of this year’s award winners were apps that focus on personal growth and creativity, instead of just relaxing or escaping. In addition to Best of 2021 app Balance, which offers personalized meditation, other personal development-styled winners include Moonly, an app for “harmonizing your life” with the lunar calendar; a “comedic relaxation” app, Laughscape; a hypnotherapy app for women, Clementine; better sleep app Sleep Cycle; mentorship community Mentor Spaces; habit tracker and planner Rabit; and an app for navigating grief from loss, Empathy.

Other winners showcased how we adapted to pandemic life, as with audio chatroom Clubhouse, tools for reducing screen time, like Speechify, or those for reconnecting with nature, like Blossom.

The full list of award winners is here.

The Amazon Appstore stopped working on Android 12 and almost no one cared

In a telling piece of news that may reflect how little traction the Amazon Appstore has with the general public, the Amazon-run Android marketplace stopped working on Android 12 devices over a month ago, and there’s been almost no media coverage until this week. On Monday, however, tech news site Liliputing finally called attention to the matter, which followed the October release of Android 12. It said that not only did the Amazon Appstore not run on Android 12 devices, apps and games also couldn’t be launched because of how the Appstore handles DRM. The site noted some 90-plus users had posted complaints in a thread on Amazon’s forums about the problem, to which Amazon’s moderators had only replied that the company was “investigating the issue.”

Amazon wouldn’t provide TechCrunch with any details as to what the underlying issues were either, only acknowledging the problem was impacting the “small number of Amazon Appstore users that upgraded to Android 12.” (Oof! Burn!) While, sure, Android users aren’t as quick to jump to new versions as iOS users are, that the entire Amazon Appstore would fail on the latest Android release makes us wonder if anyone at Amazon had even run the thing on a beta build ahead of Android 12’s launch at all? Or maybe they were too busy with that Microsoft deal to bother?

Platforms: Apple

  • As the holidays draw near, Apple’s iOS 15.2 beta 4 has been released to both developers and public testers. It also stopped signing iOS 15.1, making downloads and restores no longer possible.
  • A report by 9to5Mac pointed out how Apple said in a legal filing that it could collect commission on in-app purchases that take place outside its App Store when asking for an extension on the injunction resulting from the Epic Games lawsuit. The claim had been first spotted and tweeted by David Barnard, leading to the coverage. Apple of course wants more time to implement the required changes, and used this argument about non-App Store IAPs (among many, many other reasons) as why it should be granted the extra time. But it’s too soon to read into the filing’s statements as an indication of Apple’s future plans. Tapping into non-App Store payments in order to commission them is a complex matter and one that could open Apple up to increased liability due to fraudulent transactions. Sure, Apple may very well do that, but it also might not. But right now, this is only proof that Apple is trying really hard to get an extension, and nothing more.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: Google

  • Google announced a suite of new features coming to Android devices this winter. This includes new widgets for YouTube Music and Google Play Books, and the new Google Photos Pets & People widget, as well as a new Memories feature in Google Photos where a curated selection of special events will appear in your photo grid. Google Assistant’s Family Bell feature also expanded from home devices to mobile, and Gboard added new emojis. Android Auto received a host of updates as well.
  • Google, whose Android Developers YouTube channel has now reached 1 million subscribers, offered a number of updates on Paging, Gradle, AndroidX, Media3, Emoji2, CameraX, App Startup, Accessibility and Wear OS in its latest video (see below).

E-commerce and Food Delivery

  • Swiggy, India’s top food delivery startup, announced this week it will invest $700 million into growing its express grocery delivery service Instamart. The service was only available in two cities last year but is now in 18, where it sees more than 1 million orders per week.

Fintech & Crypto

Image Credits: Meta

  • Messenger introduced a Venmo-like feature for splitting payments. Starting next week, the company will begin testing a way for U.S. users to split the cost of bills and expenses, which can be done evenly or by modifying the contribution amount for each individual.
  • NFT collectibles app VeVe Collectibles is leading the NFT trading space on mobile with more than $100 million in consumer spending, reports Sensor Tower. This puts it ahead of Fantastec, SWAP, OurSong and Sweet, which focus on collectibles rather than wallet functionality. Though VeVe only launched in October 2020, it’s already leading the pack with 744,000 installs and $112.5 million in spending. The remaining apps have a collective 485,000 installs and $384,000 in spending.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • Now with a full-time CEO back in place, Jack Dorsey’s Square changed its name to Block to better reflect its growing ambitions in the crypto market. Block will house all the company’s products, including its seller business Square, Cash App, crypto developer platform TBD and Spiral (formerly, Square Crypto).
  • Cypto CEOs are scheduled to testify at a House committee hearing titled “Digital Assets and the Future of Finance: Understanding the Challenges and Benefits of Financial Innovation in the United States” on December 8. CEOs from Coinbase, Circle, FTX, Bitfury, Paxos and Stellar will attend.
  • Meta’s top crypto exec, David Marcus, announced he’s leaving the company later this year. Marcus previously ran Messenger at Facebook before moving to lead the crypto unit Novi, maker of the Novia digital wallet app. Meta’s Diem cryptocurrency project has seen setbacks due to regulatory pushback which slowed its development and Marcus hinted he may want to do more in the crypto space, noting “I remain as passionate as ever about the need for change in our payments and financial systems — my entrepreneurial DNA has been nudging me for too many mornings in a row to continue ignoring it.”

Social

  • ⭐️ Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey resigned from his CEO role at the social media company on Monday and will only remain on the board until his term expires in 2022. His departure will free him up to work full-time at the other company he’s been running, Square (now renamed Block), which seems to be more closely connected with his current interests in cryptocurrency and Bitcoin. Twitter’s CTO Parag Agrawal has become CEO and is already making changes. Two Twitter execs, head of engineering Michael Montano and the controversial VP of design Dantley Davis, are leaving the company, The Washington Post reported. Other teams will be reshuffled, including consumer, revenue and core tech divisions, led by Kayvon Beykpour, Bruce Falck and Nick Caldwell, respectively.
  • Meta (formerly Facebook) is now heading in a new direction with its NPE team, which has historically tested new social apps in hopes of stumbling across the next big hit. Now, the company will direct its focus more globally with offices in Nigeria and Asia and even seed-stage investments for small teams. It’s also developing projects in the U.S., which is different from its prior attempts, like helping the formerly incarcerated re-enter society, or helping LGBTQ families on their journey to becoming parents.

Image Credits: Meta

  • TikTok added new creator monetization features, including Tips and Video Gifts. The former will allow fans to send direct payments to creators, who get to keep 100% of the money. Video Gifts, meanwhile, function like LIVE Gifts, except can be awarded to creators outside a live broadcast. The features are rolling out alongside a new “Creator Next” portal, which organizes all TikTok’s monetization opportunities in one place.
  • TikTok launched a new Transparency Center, which will house the company’s historical Transparency Reports as well as its more interactive reports going forward, including the latest release: H1 2021 Content Removal Requests Reports.
  • LinkedIn added support for the Hindi language, which allows it to reach 500 million people in India. Hindi is the first regional language to be supported by the social network. The move is timely, following a week that saw another India-born exec move into the CEO ranks at a top U.S. tech company, when Twitter announced @Jack would be replaced by CTO Parag Agrawal as the company’s new chief exec.
  • Reddit added new real-time features, including typing and commenting indicators. It’s also adding voting and comment count animations and reading indicators, with the goal of making its service across desktop, iOS and Android feel more engaging and dynamic.

Messaging

  • Messenger partnered with four creators to expand its new lineup of Group Effects (AR effects that can be applied to everyone on the call at once). The new effects hail from King Bach, Emma Chamberlain, Bella Poarch and Zach King. It’s also working with Netflix on new Stranger Things soundmojis and added a new Taylor Swift soundmoji in honor of the release of “Red.”

Dating

Image Credits: App Annie screenshot

  • Bumble surpassed the $1 billion mark in consumer spending, according to data from App Annie. The dating and networking app is one of only 15 other non-gaming apps, and the only dating app outside of Tinder, to have hit this milestone. In addition to Bumble and Tinder, other billion-dollar club members include YouTube, Netflix, Tencent Video, TikTok, iQIYI, Pandora Music, LINE, Disney+, HBO Max, BIGO LIVE, Google One, LINE Manga, piccoma and Youku. The WSJ also remarked this week that Bumble, with a fully diluted valuation of around $6.6 billion, is starting to look undervalued. 
  • Match settled its lawsuit with Tinder co-founders and execs for $441 million. The suit, filed in 2018, alleged that IAC and its then-subsidiary Match Group manipulated financial data in order to create a false, “lowball valuation” of the dating app when Tinder was merged into IAC in 2017. The employees also said they had been unlawfully stripped of their Tinder stock options. The suit sought “billions of dollars” in damages at the time of its filing. While they didn’t get quite that number, after the court dismissed some of their claims for damages, $441 million is no small number. Match said it’s paying the settlement in cash. It had around $510 million in cash and cash equivalents at the end of the third quarter. 

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Spotify

  • Spotify’s anticipated year-end review, Wrapped 2021, has arrived. This year, the company introduced a number of new features, including artist and podcaster video messages, a version of Blend designed for Wrapped (which lets you compare your Wrapped with a friend), an in-app game based on “Two Truths and a Lie,” your “Audio Aura” (perfect for sharing when you don’t want to reveal your artists and songs) and more. The feature has become a popular way for Spotify to leverage its huge data collection in a way that’s not only engaging, but also makes Apple Music listeners green with envy.
  • Twitch’s iOS app added support for Apple’s SharePlay, allowing users and up to 31 of their friends to watch Twitch streams together while on a FaceTime call. To use the feature, everyone on the call has to log into their Twitch app and can then watch in either portrait or landscape mode along with friends.
  • YouTube on Android is testing a Material Design 3-inspired look, which includes pill-shaped bubbles surrounding the thin line-art icons, including a combined tab for likes and dislikes. The test design greatly shrinks the height of the bar under the video, however. The app has yet to get its Material You makeover, so this test is an indication that may soon on its way.
  • African streaming service WAW MUZIK partnered with B2B music streaming company Tuned Global on the relaunch of its music streaming app for French-speaking African territories.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

  • MrBeast’s parody video of Netflix’s “Squid Game” helped drive installs of Supercell’s Brawl Stars, reported Sensor Tower. The event had been sponsored by Supercell, which benefitted from the viral success of the video which had topped 100 million views. In the six days followed the YouTube video’s release, Brawl Stars’ downloads grew 41% week-over-week to 1.4 million. The majority (263,000) were from U.S. users. Player spending also grew 54% week-over-week worldwide to reach $8.2 million. The surge may not be all MrBeast-related, however. The Brawl Stars World Finals had just taken place November 26-28, which may have also boosted installs.
  • PUBG Mobile surpassed $7 billion in lifetime revenue after generating an average of $8.1 million per day in 2021 across the App Store and Google Play, Sensor Tower reported. Combined with the Chinese localization (Game for Peace), the title brought in $2.6 billion in 2021 so far and is the No. 2 Top Grossing game worldwide, behind Honor of Kings.

Travel & Transportation

  • Uber will begin testing an audio recording safety feature in the U.S. The company says it will begin piloting the program, which will allow drivers to send trip recordings to Uber in the case of a safety incident, in three U.S. markets:  Kansas City, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
  • Uber in India added ride-booking via WhatsApp, a first for both companies, Uber and Meta. The partnership lets users access Uber by sending a message to a chatbot, and follows WhatsApp’s rollout of in-app grocery shopping in partnership with JioMart.
  • As part of the Android winter update, Android Auto added support for digital car key for compatible BMW vehicles on Pixel 6 devices and Samsung Galaxy 21. It also now auto-launches when your phone is connected to your car, and is adding an always-on play button to its Home screen, as well as a new search icon. (The latter is coming in the “months” ahead.) Also planned is support for Smart Reply for responding to texts within Android Auto.
  • Spotify has decided to retire “Car View,” its easy-to-use interface that appears when Spotify is used while driving. The company didn’t offer an immediate replacement, which angered some users who worried that using Spotify in the car now won’t be as safe. Others, however, hated the feature and are glad to see it go.

Government & Policy

  • Some Chinese state-run companies have restricted the use of Tencent’s domestic messaging app, Weixin, citing security concerns. At least nine companies were told to stop the practice of using the app for work chats, including China Mobile, China Construction Bank Corp., China National Petroleum Corp. and others.
  • Apple and Google were fined €10 million apiece by Italy’s competition and market authority (AGCM), which said the companies didn’t provide their users with clear enough information on commercial uses of their data. Both were accused of omitting information during the account creation phase. For Apple, that includes when users first set up their Apple ID to access its digital storefronts, like the App Store.
  • U.K.’s antitrust watchdog has ordered Facebook (now called Meta) to sell Giphy, the online and mobile GIF platform it acquired for $400 million in May 2020.

Security & Privacy

  • Android devices will soon automatically turn off runtime permissions — which allow apps to access data or take actions on your behalf — for downloaded apps you haven’t used in a while. The feature was also a part of Android’s winter update and will roll out this month on Android 6.0 and higher.
  • Researchers discovered a batch of Android apps with a combined 300,000 installs that were revealed to be banking trojans that stole user passwords and two-factor authentication codes, logged user keystrokes and took screenshots. The apps had posed as QR scanners, PDF scanners and cryptocurrency wallets that had been discovered on Google Play for months.
  • Twitter expanded its safety policy by banning the posting of images and videos of private individuals without their consent. This doesn’t mean users can’t post images, necessarily, but if the private individual asks for the image to be taken down, Twitter will do so. The Columbia Journalism Review cautioned that the new policy’s wording could lead to difficulties in balancing what’s in the public interest (which is permitted) with individual privacy. Already things are not going well. Twitter Safety has locked the account of an extremism researcher who had posted videos of right-wing extremists who were discussing plans for assaulting a reporter in public, where legally, there’s no expectation of privacy.

Image Credits: Lowkey

🤝 Pokémon GO maker Niantic acquired social gaming platform Lowkey, which allows gamers a way to capture and share their favorite gaming moments. The company said it will bring on Lowkey’s team to help it build out the future of Niantic’s social experiences.

🤝 Digital creation platform Picsart announced the acquisition of R&D company DeepDraft in a seven-figure cash and stock deal. The company brings to Picsart deep expertise in AI and machine learning, which Picsart will leverage as it pushes further into the video space.

🤝 Social app IRL made its first acquisition with a deal for the “digital nutrition” company AeBeZe Labs. The company had been developing a range of products with an understanding of how digital content can impact people’s moods. IRL aims to use its technology to improve its event and community recommendations in a healthier way compared with how existing social rivals manage their own algorithms. Deal terms weren’t offered.

💰 Glorify, a Christian-focused subscription app offering meditation, bible passages and Christian music, raised $40 million in Series A funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from SoftBank Latin America Fund, K5 Global and others. Notable angel investors include Kris Jenner, Corey Gamble, Michael Ovitz, Jason Derulo and Michael Bublé.

📉 Southeast Asian super app Grab started trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol GRAB after merging with the SPAC Altimeter Growth in the biggest Wall Steet debut by a Southeast Asian company, which saw the company raising $4.5 billion, valuing its business at nearly $40 billion. After an initial jump on Thursday, shares dropped more than 20% as investors reacted to its falling revenues and rising losses.

💰 Vinehealth, the makers of an app offering digital support for cancer patients and SaaS for R&D, raised $5.5 million in seed funding led by Talis Capital. The London-based startup has now launched the app, which has around 15,000 downloads, in the U.S.

💰 Francophone African super app Gozem raised $5 million in Series A funding from AAIC, Thunes (TransferTo), Momentum Ventures (SMRT), Innoport Ventures (Schulte Group), CMC Ventures (National Express) and Liil Ventures (Mobility ADO). The app offers transportation, e-commerce and financial services across 13 cities, including Gabon and Cameroon. Users have now completed over 5 million trips using its services.

💰 Financial literacy app for kids Goalsetter raised $15 million in Series A funding, led by Seae Ventures. The app allows kids to receive an allowance and financial gifts from family and friends, which comes to their Goalsetter debit card. But they can only unlock the money by taking financial literacy quizzes. The company now plans to sell a white-labled version of its service to banks.

💰 London-based money management app Plum raised $24 million in Series A funding from dmg Ventures and others, bringing its total raise to date to $43 million. The fintech company reported 189% YoY increase in revenue.

💰 Southeast Asian investment app Endowu raised $25.6 million in new funding following its $23 million Series A just seven months ago. The new round — which the company says is in between an A and a B — was led by Prosus Ventures, the venture firm majority-owned by Naspers, and EDBI. The app has $1.5 billion SGD in total assets under management.

💰 Algeria-based Yassir raised $30 million in Series A funding to build a super app for North Africa that includes ride-hailing, last-mile delivery, payments and more. The company had previously raised $13.25 million in seed funding.

Indie App Santa

Image Credits: Indie App Santa

The new Indie App Santa app is an advent calendar of sorts for those who love to download and try out iOS apps. The idea began last year as a Twitter account, which drove around 40,000 downloads to the apps the day they were featured. This year, the team at App Craft Studio decided to expand the project to the web, a native iOS app (with Home Widgets and Push notifications), in addition to social accounts on Twitter, Gumroad and Patreon.

According to creator and indie developer François Boulis, the team wasn’t sure if Apple’s App Store Review would approve their new app because it could be considered a “mini App Store” — which is against Apple’s rules. But the app passed through App Review on its first try, he says.

The new iOS app presents an advent calendar-like interface where each day you can tap to open a door and reveal a new deal on an indie developer’s app. The app will work from December 1 through December 24, and is a free download (with the option to pay to support its development).

So far, the app has revealed deals including a free version of MrClockface, a clock widget app; a free version of visual calendar Structured Pro; and puzzle game Blackbox. Most of the apps featured throughout the month will also be free, except for YarnBuddy (December 8), which will offer its $39.99 IAP for just $9.99 on the day of its featuring. Other coming app deals include those for Jinks!, Twidget, Vinyls, Crouton, Bluebird, PastePal, Wynk, Guessing Game, Inventory List, Skaffer, Sticker Doodle, Calory, Sync Flashlight, HabitMinder, un:safe, FitnessView, Times Up! Timer, Luxilux, Pile and Wordsmyth.

But India App Santa’s deals don’t last forever — you have to grab them as they arrive, or you’ll miss out.

Alms

Image Credits: Alms

A new startup called Alms is building a social network that focuses on users’ well-being through participation in creator-led challenges in areas like personal growth, sustainability and others focused on positive impacts. Instead of driving the collection of “likes,” as on other social apps, Alms aims to encourage real-world engagement through its challenges and the specific steps and actions that must be taken. The idea, explains Alms founder Alexander Nevedovsky, is to design an app that guides users to a happier and more meaningful life when they use it. At launch Alms has 30 creators on board, and more in the pipeline, and has attracted a couple of thousand users in its first few days on the App Store. (Read a full review here on TechCrunch.)

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Picsart acquires R&D company DeepCraft in seven-figure deal to aid video push – TechCrunch

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SoftBank-based digital creation platform Picsart, which recently hit uniciorn status, announced today it’s acquiring the research and development company DeepCraft. The deal is a combination of both cash and stock and is in the seven-figure range, but the exact terms aren’t being disclosed.

Picsart today offers a range of digital creation and editing tools aimed at both consumers and professionals alike that make photo and video editing more fun and approachable. The company believes DeepCraft’s A.I. technical talent and its breakthroughs in computer vision and machine learning will enhance Picsart’s own A.I. technology and help the company better support the recent growth of video creation on its service. The team will also help to complement Picsart’s A.I. research and development arm, PAIR (Picsart AI Research) with additional senior resources, the company says.

Founded in 2017, Armenia-based DeepCraft specialized in video and image processing and was the country’s first unicorn. Its co-founders, Armen Abroyan (CEO) and Vardges Hovhannisyan (CTO) have spent more than 20 years in A.I. and machine learning, and are well-known in their local community for their expertise. Abroyan previously held positions as the Deputy Minister for the Ministry of High Tech Industry Republic of Armenia, Lead AI Architect at RedKite, and Senior Software Developer at Synopsys. Meanwhile, Hovhannisyan spent 13 years as a senior R&D engineer at Synopsys.

At DeepCraft, the team worked with a number of clients on a contract basis, including Krisp, PatriotOne, and even the Armenian Government. This work has wrapped up and the team will now begin working from Picsart’s offices in Yerevan. In total, the full DeepCraft team of eight senior machine learning and video engineers will be joining Picsart as full-time employees, as a result of the deal.

Picsart had first entered the video market in 2018 with the acquisition of EFEKT (previously D’efekt), and has seen usage surge in recent years — particularly as its app has been adopted by social media creators and e-commerce shops which use video. So far in 2021, PicsArt has seen more than 180 million videos edited in its app — a 70% increase year-over-year. It now offers thousands of effects and dozens of video editing tools, and plans to grow this lineup as A.I. and cloud technology evolves, it says.

With DeepCraft, Picsart is particularly interested in how the team’s skillset and technology expertise can help it move forward with its support of video, which the company says will be a significant focus in 2022.

However, Picsart is not acquiring specific IP from DeepCraft as part of this deal, the company told TechCrunch.

PicsArt already had a relationship with DeepCraft ahead of the deal as the two had been collaborating on various technology developments.

“DeepCraft is a unique team of deep technology engineers, and we’ve already been working with them to build our core technologies for over a year,” said Picsart co-founder and CTO Artavazd Mehrabyan. “As we invest even further into advancing our video capabilities, we are confident the DeepCraft team will play a significant role in building the future of video,” he added.

The DeepCraft deal is the first acquisition from Picsart since raising its $130 million Series C round in August led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2. The round lifted the company to unicorn status, up from its prior valuation of around $600 million in 2019.

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Shiftsmart, a marketplace matching shift workers to employers, grabs $95M – TechCrunch

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The holiday shopping season kicked off last week with some lackluster results, but employers are still in dire need of workers.

The tight labor market, driven in part by “The Great Resignation,” is highlighting the need for more tech-enabled tools for connecting employers with available workers.

Shiftsmart, a New York-based labor management resource, is the latest to see some love from investors, bringing in $95 million in Series B funding for its workforce management software that matches hourly workers with open shifts across a variety of industry verticals and roles.

Since forming in 2015, the company has amassed a network of over 500,000 workers in over 50 countries who have flexibility and control over where they work, how much they work and how fast they can get paid, while employers can customize their staffing needs and reduce turnover.

“On the demand side there were already different pieces in place, but on the supply side — the workers — was what we thought was the innovation,” Aakash Kumar, founder and CEO of Shiftsmart, told TechCrunch. “We are making it easy so you can create a profile, flip an app and work when you want. The gig economy was point-to-point logistics, but the ability to control your own schedule is something we are going to extend forward.”

The latest funding round gives Shiftsmart $117 million in total investments. D1 Capital led this round with participation from Imaginary Ventures, Spieker Partners, Oakridge Management Group and S12F, alongside several industry executives and institutions.

Jeff Leventhal, managing partner at S12F, said he believes in the empowerment of workers and how they are treated and thought Shiftsmart’s approach not only gave workers flexibility in their day, but also a lot of opportunity to work for different companies and in different roles.

The days of shift work that involve “coming in at 2 p.m. or you are fired, is a dated concept,” he said.

“One of the hard things to get right is user experience, but Shiftsmart is level-setting the world,” he added. “The company gets in uniquely correctly. Marketplaces are hard to build and get working, but Shiftsmart’s technology is meant to be flexible for both the employer and employee.”

Shiftsmart touts a customer list that includes Circle K, Humana, Deloitte, Airbnb and the Small Business Administration. The company previously raised venture capital about three years ago, but as revenue continued to double or triple each year, Kumar said it became time to look at another round, especially of lately as employers faced labor shortages.

“We help employers expand the total size of their market by breaking the work down to the shift level,” he added. “Your odds of finding someone to do a three-hour shift a few times a week will be a lot higher than finding someone willing to sign up for 40 hours per week and get paid every two weeks.”

The new funding will go into scaling its verticals, which include audits and contracts, retail and global logistics and into launching new verticals like healthcare. The company will also do additional hiring. It has 60 employees currently, which is up from about 30 people a year ago.

Much of the technology built for staffing centered around knowledge workers, but a number of companies like Shiftsmart, focused on hourly workers, have also received investor attention lately.

For example, in November, the messaging platform for shift signups When I Work closed on a huge round — $200 million, while Fountain brought in $85 million and Seasoned grabbed $18.7 million for its tool for restaurant workers. Earlier this year, we saw Homebase, which raised $71 million earlier this year, and Workiz, which focuses on home services pros, raised $13 million.

With all of that competition, as well as companies that manage hourly workers in-house, Kumar said Shiftsmart’s differentiator was how it partners with its customers, which can use the platform with Shiftsmart’s labor force or with its own.

“It’s an exciting time for the business, and the global labor shortage has made it critical,” he added. “Our main focus is how to scale up operations to be able to absorb demand and create more unique experiences for workers as we learn more about their behaviors.”

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