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Instagram finally launches 13+ age checkups – TechCrunch

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Instagram is done playing dumb about users’ ages. After nine years, Instagram is finally embracing more responsibility to protect underage kids from the problems with social media. It will now ask new users to input their birth date and bar users younger than 13 from joining. However, it won’t be asking existing users their age, so Instagram will turn a blind eye to any underage kids already amongst its 1 billion members.

Instagram will later start using age info to offer education about settings and new privacy controls for younger users. It’s also adding the option to only allow people you follow to message you, add you to a group or reply to your Story.

Yesterday we published an opinion piece noting that “Instagram still doesn’t age-check kids. That must change.” after receiving no-comments from Instagram after mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram prototyping an age-check feature. As the code she found indicated, Instagram will keep your birthday and date private, and sync it with your Facebook profile if you link your accounts.

Instagram had fallen far behind in protecting underage users. It’s relied on ignorance about users’ ages to avoid a $40,000 fine per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act that bans services from collecting personal info from children younger than 13. “Asking for this information will help prevent underage people from joining Instagram, help us keep young people safer and enable more age-appropriate experiences overall,” Instagram notes.

Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok already require users to enter their birth date as soon as they start the signup process. TikTok built a whole separate section of its app where kids can watch videos but not post or comment, after it was fined $5.7 million by the FTC for violating COPPA.

As for why it took so long, an Instagram spokesperson tells TechCrunch, “Historically, we didn’t require people to tell us their age because we wanted Instagram to be a place where everyone can express themselves fully — irrespective of their identity.” That seems like a pretty thin excuse.

Adding the age check is a good first step for Instagram. But it should consider how it can do more to verify the ages users enter and keep out those who don’t belong exposed to strangers across the app. Moving in line with industry standards is attaining minimum viable responsibility. But an app so appealing to younger users and that deals in such sensitive data should be leading on safety, not just following the herd.

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Oracle now monitoring TikTok’s algorithms and moderation system for manipulation by China’s government – TechCrunch

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Oracle has begun auditing TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models, according to a new report from Axios out this morning. Those reviews began last week, and follow TikTok’s June announcement it had moved its U.S. traffic to Oracle servers amid claims its U.S. user data had been accessed by TikTok colleagues in China.

The new arrangement is meant to allow Oracle the ability to monitor TikTok’s systems to help the company in its efforts to assure U.S. lawmakers that its app is not being manipulated by Chinese government authorities. Oracle will audit how TikTok’s algorithm surfaces content to “ensure outcomes are in line with expectations,” and that those models have not been manipulated, the report said. In addition, TikTok will regularly audit TikTok’s content moderation practices, including both its automated systems and its moderation decisions where people are choosing how to enforce TikTok policy.

TikTok’s moderation policies have been controversial in years past. In 2019, The Washington Post reported TikTok’s U.S. employees had often been ordered to restrict some videos on its platform at the behest of Beijing-based teams, and that teams in China would sometimes block or penalize certain videos out of caution about Chinese government restrictions. That same year, The Guardian also reported TikTok had been telling its moderators to censor videos that mentioned things like Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, per a set of leaked documents. In 2020, The Intercept reported TikTok moderators were told to censor political speech in livestreams and to suppress posts from “undesirable users” — the unattractive, poor or disabled, its documents said.

All the while, TikTok disputed the various claims — calling leaked documents outdated, for instance, in the latter two scenarios. It also continued to insist that its U.S. arm didn’t take instructions from its Chinese parent, ByteDance.

But a damning June 2022 report by BuzzFeed News proved that TikTok’s connection to China was closer than it had said. The news outlet found that U.S. data had been repeatedly accessed by staff in China, citing recordings from 80 TikTok internal meetings.

Following BuzzFeed’s reporting, TikTok announced that it was moving all U.S. traffic to Oracle’s infrastructure cloud service — a move designed to keep TikTok’s U.S. user data from prying eyes.

That agreement, a part of a larger operation called “Project Texas,” had been in progress for over a year and was focused on further separating TikTok’s U.S. operations from China, and employing an outside firm to oversee its algorithms.

Now, it seems Oracle is in charge of keeping an eye on TikTok to help prevent data emanating from the U.S. from being directed to China. The deal steps up Oracle’s involvement with TikTok as not only the host for the user data, but an auditor who could later back up or dispute TikTok’s claims that its system is operating fairly and without China’s influence. 

Oracle and TikTok have an interesting history. Towards the end of the Trump administration, the former president tried to force a sale between the two companies, bringing in long-time supporter, Oracle founder and CTO Larry Ellison to help broker the deal for his company. That deal eventually fell apart in February 2021, but the story didn’t end there, as it turned out.

But while this new TikTok-Oracle agreement has significance in terms of the tech industry and in politics, Oracle’s deal with TikTok doesn’t necessarily make the firm a more powerful player in the cloud infrastructure market.

Even with TikTok’s business, Oracle’s cloud infrastructure service represents just a fraction of the cloud infrastructure market. In the most recent quarter, Synergy Research, a firm that tracks this data, reported the cloud infrastructure market reached almost $55 billion with Amazon leading the way with 34%, Microsoft in second with 21%, and Google in third place with 10%. Oracle remains under 2%, says John Dinsdale, who is a principal analyst at the firm.

“Oracle’s share of the worldwide cloud infrastructure services market remains at just below 2% and has shown no signs of meaningful increase. So Oracle’s cloud revenue growth is pretty much keeping pace with overall market growth,” Dinsdale told TechCrunch. Synergy defines “cloud infrastructure services” as Infrastructure as a Service, Platform as a Service and hosted private cloud services. Dinsdale points out that Oracle’s SaaS business is much stronger.”

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Spotify prompts some users to record reaction podcasts to playlists – TechCrunch

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After testing new in-app podcast recording tools for users in New Zealand, Spotify is now trialing a new audio feature in Vietnam, one that’s designed to encourage users to record voice reactions to playlists.

A Reddit user posted screenshots of the feature, showing how they received a prompt to react to a playlist with a voice clip that will be posted as a podcast episode. As per its previous test in New Zealand, it’s fair to assume that these reaction ‘podcasts’ will be published directly to creators’ personal profilers where followers will be able to listen.

The screenshots show that users included in the test are seeing a microphone icon on playlist screens, and upon tapping that, they see a new screen that prompts them to record a voice reaction to the playlist.

Users are seeing a mic icon to record a voice reaction to a playlist Image Credits: Reddit (opens in a new window)

Spotify recording prompt

Image Credits: Reddit (opens in a new window)

Once they hit the button, they can either record in one go or multiple clips by pausing. Later, they can edit the clip, add background music, and tag the playlist before publishing.

This workflow is similar to the test in New Zealand, except in that test, the starting point was a “Record Podcast” button on the home screen. So this test is more about giving a prompt to users who might not have a podcast idea in their mind.

Spotify podcast

Spotify shows some rules creators must follow for podcast recording for safety Image Credits: Reddit (opens in a new window)

Spotify has confirmed the test, but the company didn’t share any details about what locations the feature is available, and how it plans to moderate these voice reactions.

“At Spotify, we are always looking for ways to enhance our users’ experience on our platform, and we regularly test features that we believe will bring value to listeners and creators. We are currently running a limited test of in-app audio creation, but have no further details to share at this time,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

As we noted in our story in June, a lot of these features are powered by Spotify-owned podcast creation app Anchor. These tests indicate that the streaming giant is trying to convert listeners to creators by providing them with easy in-app tools to make and publish podcasts.

In its Q2 2022 earnings last month, Spotify said it now has 4.4 million podcasts on the platform, and users engaging with them have grown at a “substantial double digits year-on-year.” Spotify has invested more than $1 billion in podcasting in the last few years with €83 million ($84.3 million) invested this year alone to acquire podcast analytics companies Podsights and Chartable.

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Bumble experiments with group chats, polls and video calls for its new social networking feature, ‘Hive’ – TechCrunch

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Dating app maker Bumble revealed more of its plans to strengthen its social networking features during last week’s Q2 earnings, which saw the company’s shares slump over its lowered financial outlook despite delivering a revenue beat. Now, new images show what Bumble has been developing as part of the larger revamp of its “Bumble BFF” friend-finding feature — a change that could help the app attract a new audience beyond just young singles. Specifically, Bumble BFF has been testing a new “communities” offering it’s calling “Hive,” which, the images show, may include support for features like group chat, polls and video calls.

Bumble briefly referenced its plans for Hive on its Q2 2022 earnings call with investors, noting Hive was a “next-generation offering” focused on helping people find “platonic connections through small communities.” In other words, a groups product.

“As we have shared before, our approach is built on the insight that people want to find friends, acquaintances and connections through shared struggles and common joys: moving to a new city, navigating parenthood, finding a partner for hiking, or really anything else in between,” founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd told investors.

She noted Bumble had recently expanded its alpha tests of the new Bumble BFF feature to the Greater Toronto area where Bumble users have since created thousands of these online communities known as “Hives.”

Image Credits: Bumble Hives via Watchful

The promise of platonic social networking is one the company believes could help it find engagement beyond the world of online dating. During its tests, Bumble said the weekly average number of sessions for BFF members increased by two-thirds, and their weekly time spent in-app was up 16%.

According to new images released by product intelligence firm Watchful, Bumble’s Hive includes a variety of now-standard social networking features. It shows BFF members can create profiles, join interest groups led by admins, publish posts, engage in group chats, create and respond to polls and more. There’s also an option for group video calls within the “Hives.”

Image Credits: Bumble Hives via Watchful

Video is not entirely new to Bumble, however.

The company also told investors it has been testing both video and audio in select markets as a way to enhance member profiles with “richer and more dynamic” content. This could additionally help Bumble better compete against a growing number of video-focused dating apps, like Snack, S’More, Desti and others.

Image Credits: Bumble Hives via Watchful

More broadly, Bumble’s latest updates aim to address the shift among younger, Gen Z users who are inclined to embrace apps that allow them to socially “hang out” online — like livestreaming app Yubo and various friend-finders, including those that help them make new friends on Snapchat and elsewhere, such as Hoop, Wink, Wizz, Qudo, Wave, LMK, Swipr and Vibe, among others. Dating giant Match also embraced this trend with its $1.73 billion deal for Hyperconnect, a company that had been more focused on social networking than dating. However, that investment has not yet paid off beyond bringing audio and video technologies to various Match dating apps.

Bumble was unable to provide a statement on the new Hive features, when reached for comment.

In Q2, Bumble reported $220.5 million in revenue in its most recent quarter, ahead of Wall Street estimates, but saw a loss of 3 cents per share versus the 1 cent loss expected. It also lowered its full-year revenue forecast citing increased competition with Match, the war in Ukraine, inflation and foreign exchange headwinds.

In addition to Bumble BFF’s Hive, the company is working on new astrology features, product enhancements for LGBTQIA+ users, tests of “messaging before match” features, audio and video features, and other monetization products.

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