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Instagram still doesn’t age-check kids. That must change. – TechCrunch

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Instagram dodges child safety laws. By not asking users their age upon signup, it can feign ignorance about how old they are. That way, it can’t be held liable for $40,000 per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. The law bans online services from collecting personally identifiable information about kids under 13 without parental consent. Yet Instagram is surely stockpiling that sensitive info about underage users, shrouded by the excuse that it doesn’t know who’s who.

But here, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s dangerous. User growth at all costs is no longer acceptable.

It’s time for Instagram to step up and assume responsibility for protecting children, even if that means excluding them. Instagram needs to ask users’ age at sign up, work to verify they volunteer their accurate birthdate by all practical means, and enforce COPPA by removing users it knows are under 13. If it wants to allow tweens on its app, it needs to build a safe, dedicated experience where the app doesn’t suck in COPPA-restricted personal info.

Minimum Viable Responsibility

Instagram is woefully behind its peers. Both Snapchat and TikTok require you to enter your age as soon as you start the sign up process. This should really be the minimum regulatory standard, and lawmakers should close the loophole allowing services to skirt compliance by not asking. If users register for an account, they should be required to enter an age of 13 or older.

Instagram’s parent company Facebook has been asking for birthdate during account registration since its earliest days. Sure, it adds one extra step to sign up, and impedes its growth numbers by discouraging kids to get hooked early on the social network. But it also benefits Facebook’s business by letting it accurately age-target ads.

Most importantly, at least Facebook is making a baseline effort to keep out underage users. Of course, as kids do when they want something, some are going to lie about their age and say they’re old enough. Ideally, Facebook would go further and try to verify the accuracy of a user’s age using other available data, and Instagram should too.

Both Facebook and Instagram currently have moderators lock the accounts of any users they stumble across that they suspect are under 13. Users must upload government-issued proof of age to regain control. That policy only went into effect last year after UK’s Channel 4 reported a Facebook moderator was told to ignore seemingly underage users unless they explicitly declared they were too young or were reported for being under 13. An extreme approach would be to require this for all signups, though that might be expensive, slow, significantly hurt signup rates, and annoy of-age users.

Instagram is currently on the other end of the spectrum. Doing nothing around age-gating seems recklessly negligent. When asked for comment about how why it doesn’t ask users’ ages, how it stops underage users from joining, and if it’s in violation of COPPA, Instagram declined to comment. The fact that Instagram claims to not know users’ ages seems to be in direct contradiction to it offering marketers custom ad targeting by age such as reaching just those that are 13.

Instagram Prototypes Age Checks

Luckily, this could all change soon.

Mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong has spotted Instagram code inside its Android app that shows it’s prototyping an age-gating feature that rejects users under 13. It’s also tinkering with requiring your Instagram and Facebook birthdates to match. Instagram gave me a “no comment” when I asked about if these features would officially roll out to everyone.

Code in the app explains that “Providing your birthday helps us make sure you get the right Instagram experience. Only you will be able to see your birthday.” Beyond just deciding who to let in, Instagram could use this info to make sure users under 18 aren’t messaging with adult strangers, that users under 21 aren’t seeing ads for alcohol brands, and that potentially explicit content isn’t shown to minors.

Instagram’s inability to do any of this clashes with it and Facebook’s big talk this year about its commitment to safety. Instagram has worked to improve its approach to bullying, drug sales, self-harm, and election interference, yet there’s been not a word about age gating.

Meanwhile, underage users promote themselves on pages for hashtags like #12YearOld where it’s easy to find users who declare they’re that age right in their profile bio. It took me about 5 minutes to find creepy “You’re cute” comments from older men on seemingly underage girls’ photos. Clearly Instagram hasn’t been trying very hard to stop them from playing with the app.

Illegal Growth

I brought up the same unsettling situations on Musically, now known as TikTok, to its CEO Alex Zhu on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2016. I grilled Zhu about letting 10-year-olds flaunt their bodies on his app. He tried to claim parents run all of these kids’ accounts, and got frustrated as we dug deeper into Musically’s failures here.

Thankfully, TikTok was eventually fined $5.7 million this year for violating COPPA and forced to change its ways. As part of its response, TikTok started showing an age gate to both new and existing users, removed all videos of users under 13, and restricted those users to a special TikTok Kids experience where they can’t post videos, comment, or provide any COPPA-restricted personal info.

If even a Chinese app social media app that Facebook CEO has warned threatens free speech with censorship is doing a better job protecting kids than Instagram, something’s gotta give. Instagram could follow suit, building a special section of its apps just for kids where they’re quarantined from conversing with older users that might prey on them.

Perhaps Facebook and Instagram’s hands-off approach stems from the fact that CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t think the ban on under-13-year-olds should exist. Back in 2011, he said “That will be a fight we take on at some point . . . My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age.” He’s put that into practice with Messenger Kids which lets 6 to 12-year-olds chat with their friends if parents approve.

The Facebook family of apps’ ad-driven business model and earnings depend on constant user growth that could be inhibited by stringent age gating. It surely doesn’t want to admit to parents it’s let kids slide into Instagram, that advertisers were paying to reach children too young to buy anything, and to Wall Street that it might not have 2.8 billion legal users across its apps as it claims.

But given Facebook and Instagram’s privacy scandals, addictive qualities, and impact on democracy, it seems like proper age-gating should be a priority as well as the subject of more regulatory scrutiny and public concern. Society has woken up to the harms of social media, yet Instagram erects no guards to keep kids from experiencing those ills for themselves. Until it makes an honest effort to stop kids from joining, the rest of Instagram’s safety initiatives ring hollow.



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Mobile game spending hits record $1.7B per week in Q1 2021, up 40% from pre-pandemic levels – TechCrunch

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The COVID-19 pandemic drove increased demand for mobile gaming, as consumers under lockdowns looked to online sources of entertainment, including games. But even as COVID-19 restrictions are easing up, the demand for mobile gaming isn’t slowing. According to a new report from mobile data and analytics provider App Annie in collaboration with IDC, users worldwide downloaded 30% more games in the first quarter of 2021 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, and spent a record-breaking $1.7 billion per week in mobile games in Q1 2021.

That figure is up 40% from pre-pandemic levels, the report noted.

Image Credits: App Annie

The U.S. and Germany led other markets in terms of growth in mobile game spending year-over-year as of Q1 2021 in the North American and Western European markets, respectively. Saudi Arabia and Turkey led the growth in the rest of the world, outside the Asia-Pacific region. The latter made up around half of the mobile game spend in the quarter, App Annie said.

The growth in mobile gaming, in part accelerated by the pandemic, also sees mobile further outpacing other forms of digital games consumption. This year, mobile gaming will increase its global lead over PC and Mac gaming to 2.9x and will extend its lead over home games consoles to 3.1x.

Image Credits: App Annie

However, this change comes at a time when the mobile and console market is continuing to merge, App Annie notes, as more mobile devices are capable of offering console-like graphics and gameplay experiences, including those with cross-platform capabilities and social gaming features.

Games with real-time online features tend to dominate the Top Grossing charts on the app stores, including things like player-vs-player and cross-play features. For example, the top grossing mobile game worldwide on iOS and Google Play in Q1 2021 was Roblox. This was followed by Genshin Impact, which just won an Apple Design Award during the Worldwide Developer Conference for its visual experience.

Image Credits: App Annie

The report also analyzed the ad market around gaming and the growth of mobile companion apps for game consoles, including My Nintendo, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation App, Steam, Nintendo Switch and Xbox apps. Downloads for these apps peaked under lockdowns in April 2020 in the U.S., but continue to see stronger downloads than pre-pandemic.

Image Credits: App Annie

On the advertising front, App Annie says user sentiment toward in-game mobile ads improved in Q3 2020 compared with Q3 2019, but rewarded video ads and playable ads were preferred in the U.S.

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Apple Podcasts Subscriptions go live worldwide – TechCrunch

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Apple Podcasts Subscriptions are now live across more than 170 countries and regions, Apple announced this morning. First unveiled this spring, subscriptions allow listeners to unlock additional benefits for their favorite podcasts, including things like ad-free listening, early access to new episodes, bonus material, exclusives or whatever else the podcast creator believes will be something their fans will pay for. Channels allow podcasters to group their shows however they like — for instance, to highlight a set of shows with a shared theme, or to offer different mixes of free and paid content.

The new subscription features were initially set to arrive in May, but Apple later emailed creators that the launch was being pushed to June. This was likely due to a series of back-end issues impacting the service, including things like delayed episodes and malfunctioning analytics, among other things.

At launch, Apple says there are thousands of subscriptions and channels available, with more expected to arrive on a weekly basis.

When listeners purchase a subscription to a show, they’ll automatically follow the show in the redesigned Apple Podcasts app. The show’s page will also be updated with a Subscriber Edition label, so they’ll be able to more easily tell if they have access to the premium experience.

The app’s Listen Now tab will expand with new rows that provide access to paid subscriptions, including their available channels.

In the app, users can discover channels from show pages and through Search, browse through recommendations from the Listen Now and Browse tabs, and share channels with friends through Messages, Mail and other apps.

Apple’s delay to invest in the Podcasts market has given its rivals a head start on growing their own audience for podcasts. At the time of the spring announcement of subscriptions, for example, an industry report suggested that Spotify’s podcast listeners would top Apple’s for the first time in 2021.

Despite the competition, Apple is betting its massive install base will bring in creators. Those creators agree to pay Apple a 30% cut of their subscription revenue in year one, just like subscription-based iOS apps. That cut drops to 15% in year two. Spotify, by comparison, is taking no revenue cut for the next two years while its program gets off the ground. It will then take only a 5% fee.

Based on the debut lineup, it seems many creators and studios believe Apple’s footprint is worth the larger revenue share.

Early adopters of subscriptions include notable names like Lemonada Media, Luminary, Realm and Wondery; media and entertainment brands, including CNN, NPR, The Washington Post and Sony Music Entertainment.

Other studio participants include Audio Up, Betches Media, Blue Wire, Campside Media, Imperative Entertainment, Lantigua Williams & Co., Magnificent Noise, The Moth, Neon Hum Media, Three Uncanny Four, Wondery, Audacy’s Cadence13 and Ramble, Barstool Sports, Jake Brennan’s Double Elvis, Headgum, iHeartMedia’s The Black Effect, Big Money Players, Grim & Mild, Seneca Women, Shondaland, Relay FM, Tenderfoot TV, Radiotopia from PRX, Pushkin Industries, QCODE and others,

Image Credits: Apple

In the news category, there’s also The Athletic, Fox News, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Media, Politico and Vox Media, plus channels from other newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, radio stations and digital publishers, including ABC News, Axios, Billboard, Bravo, CNBC, CNN, Crooked Media, Dateline, Entertainment Weekly, Futuro Media, The Hollywood Reporter, LAist Studios, National Geographic, MSNBC, NBC News, NBC Sports, New York Magazine, The New York Times, SiriusXM, SB Nation, Southern Living, The Verge, TODAY, VICE, Vogue, Vox and WBUR.

Kids’ podcasts are also available, including those from GBH, Gen-Z Media, Pinna, Wonkybot Studios, TRAX from PRX and others.

Apple also highlighted independent creators offering subscriptions like “Birthful” with Adriana Lozada, “Pantsuit Politics” with Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland, “Snap Judgment” with Glynn Washington and “You Had Me At Black” with Martina Abrams Ilunga.

Image Credits: Apple

Meanwhile, international subscriptions and channels are being offered from ABC, LiSTNR and SBS from Australia; Abrace Podcasts from Brazil; CANADALAND and Frequency Podcast Network from Canada; GoLittle from Denmark; Europe 1, Louie Media, and Radio France from France; Der Spiegel, Podimo, and ZEIT ONLINE from Germany; Il Sole 24 Ore and Storielibere.fm from Italy; J-WAVE from Japan; Brainrich from Korea; libo/libo from Russia; Finyal Media from the UAE; and Broccoli Productions, The Bugle, Content Is Queen, the Guardian, Immediate Media, and Somethin’ Else from the U.K.

Subscriptions start at $0.49 U.S. per month and go up, with some popular shows priced at $2.99 per month and some channels, like Luminary, at $4.99 per month, to give you an idea of pricing. Apple Card users get a 3% cash back on their subscriptions, which can be viewed in Apple Wallet.

Once subscribed, you can listen across Apple devices, including iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, CarPlay, HomePod and HomePod mini.

Subscriptions were announced alongside a redesigned version of the Apple Podcasts app, which has received a number of usability complaints and sent some users in search of third-party apps. Apple has been responding to user feedback and addressed some issues in the iOS 14.6 update with other Library tab updates planned to arrive in future releases, perhaps iOS 14.7.

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UK’s CMA opens market study into Apple, Google’s mobile “duopoly” – TechCrunch

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The UK’s competition watchdog will take a deep dive look into Apple and Google’s dominance of the mobile ecosystem, it said today — announcing a market study which will examine the pair’s respective smartphone platforms (iOS and Android); their app stores (App Store and Play Store); and web browsers (Safari and Chrome). 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is concerned that the mobile platform giants’ “effective duopoly” in those areas  might be harming consumers, it added.

The study will be wide ranging, with the watchdog concerns about the nested gateways that are created as a result of the pair’s dominance of mobile ecosystem — intermediating how consumers can access a variety of products, content and services (such as music, TV and video streaming; fitness tracking, shopping and banking, to cite some of the examples provided by the CMA).

“These products also include other technology and devices such as smart speakers, smart watches, home security and lighting (which mobiles can connect to and control),” it went on, adding that it’s looking into whether their dominance of these pipes is “stifling competition across a range of digital markets”, saying too that it’s “concerned this could lead to reduced innovation across the sector and consumers paying higher prices for devices and apps, or for other goods and services due to higher advertising prices”.

The CMA further confirmed the deep dive will examine “any effects” of the pair’s market power over other businesses — giving the example of app developers who rely on Apple or Google to market their products to customers via their smart devices.

The watchdog already has an open investigation into Apple’s App Store, following a number of antitrust complaints by developers.

It is investigating Google’s planned depreciation of third party tracking cookies too, after complaints by adtech companies and publishers that the move could harm competition. (And just last week the CMA said it was minded to accept a series of concessions offered by Google that would enable the regulator to stop it turning off support for cookies entirely if it believes the move will harm competition.)

The CMA said both those existing investigations are examining issues that fall within the scope of the new mobile ecosystem market study but that its work on the latter will be “much broader”.

It added that it will adopt a joined-up approach across all related cases — “to ensure the best outcomes for consumers and other businesses”.

It’s giving itself a full year to examine Gapple’s mobile ecosystems.

It is also soliciting feedback on any of the issues raised in its statement of scope — calling for responses by 26 July. The CMA added that it’s also keen to hear from app developers, via its questionnaire, by the same date.

Taking on tech giants

The watchdog has previously scrutinized the digital advertising market — and found plenty to be concerned about vis-a-vis Google’s dominance there.

That earlier market study has been feeding the UK government’s plan to reform competition rules to take account of the market-deforming power of digital giants. And the CMA suggested the new market study, examining ‘Gapple’s’ mobile muscle, could similarly help shape UK-wide competition law reforms.

Last year the UK announced its plan to set up a “pro-competition” regime for regulating Internet platforms — including by establishing a dedicated Digital Markets Unit within the CMA (which got going earlier this year).

The legislation for the reform has not yet been put before parliament but the government has said it wants the competition regulator to be able to “proactively shape platforms’ behavior” to avoid harmful behavior before it happens” — saying too that it supports enabling ex ante interventions once a platform has been identified to have so-called “strategic market status”.

Germany already adopted similar reforms to its competition law (early this year), which enable proactive interventions to tackle large digital platforms with what is described as “paramount significance for competition across markets”. And its Federal Cartel Office has, in recent months, wasted no time in opening a number of proceedings to determine whether Amazon, Google and Facebook have such a status.

The CMA also sounds keen to get going to tackle Internet gatekeepers.

Commenting in a statement, CEO Andrea Coscelli said:

“Apple and Google control the major gateways through which people download apps or browse the web on their mobiles – whether they want to shop, play games, stream music or watch TV. We’re looking into whether this could be creating problems for consumers and the businesses that want to reach people through their phones.

“Our ongoing work into big tech has already uncovered some worrying trends and we know consumers and businesses could be harmed if they go unchecked. That’s why we’re pressing on with launching this study now, while we are setting up the new Digital Markets Unit, so we can hit the ground running by using the results of this work to shape future plans.”

The European Union also unveiled its own proposals for clipping the wings of big tech last year — presenting its Digital Markets Act plan in December which will apply a single set of operational rules to so-called “gatekeeper” platforms operating across the EU.

The clear trend in Europe on digital competition is toward increasing oversight and regulation of the largest platforms — in the hopes that antitrust authorities can impose measures that will help smaller players thrive.

Critics might say that’s just playing into the tech giants’ hands, though — because it’s fiddling around the edges when more radical intervention (break ups) are what’s really needed to reboot captured markets.

Apple and Google were contacted for comment on the CMA’s market study.

A Google spokesperson said: “Android provides people with more choice than any other mobile platform in deciding which apps they use, and enables thousands of developers and manufacturers to build successful businesses. We welcome the CMA’s efforts to understand the details and differences between platforms before designing new rules.”

According to Google, the Android App Economy generated £2.8BN in revenue for UK developers last year, which it claims supported 240,000 jobs across the country — citing a Public First report that it commissioned.

The tech giant also pointed to operational changes it has already made in Europe, following antitrust interventions by the European Commission — such as adding a choice screen to Android where users can pick from a list of alternative search engines.

Earlier this month it agreed to shift the format underlying that choice screen from an unpopular auction model to free participation.

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