Facebook is leaning on fears of China exporting its authoritarian social values to counter arguments that it should be broken up or slowed down. Its top executives have each claimed that if the U.S. limits its size, blocks its acquisitions or bans its cryptocurrency, Chinese company’s absent these restrictions will win abroad, bringing more power and data to their government. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and VP of communications Nick Clegg have all expressed this position.
The latest incarnation of this talking point came in today’s and yesterday’s congressional hearings over Libra, the Facebook -spearheaded digital currency it hopes to launch in the first half of 2020. Facebook’s head of its blockchain subsidiary Calibra, David Marcus, wrote in his prepared remarks to the House Financial Services Committee today that (emphasis added):
I believe that if America does not lead innovation in the digital currency and payments area, others will. If we fail to act, we could soon see a digital currency controlled by others whose values are dramatically different.
Marcus also told the Senate Banking Subcommittee yesterday that “I believe if we stay put we’re going to be in a situation in 10, 15 years where half the world is on a blockchain technology that is out of reach of our national-security apparatus.”.
This argument is designed to counter House-drafted “Keep Big Tech Out of Finance” legislation that Reuters reports would declare that companies like Facebook that earn over $25 billion in annual revenue “may not establish, maintain, or operate a digital asset . . . that is intended to be widely used as medium of exchange, unit of account, store of value, or any other similar function.”
The message Facebook is trying to deliver is that cryptocurrencies are inevitable. Blocking Libra would just open the door to even less scrupulous actors controlling the technology. Facebook’s position here isn’t limited to cryptocurrencies, though.
The concept crystallized exactly a year ago when Zuckerberg said in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, “I think you have this question from a policy perspective, which is, do we want American companies to be exporting across the world?” (emphasis added):
We grew up here, I think we share a lot of values that I think people hold very dear here, and I think it’s generally very good that we’re doing this, both for security reasons and from a values perspective. Because I think that the alternative, frankly, is going to be the Chinese companies. If we adopt a stance which is that, ‘Okay, we’re gonna, as a country, decide that we wanna clip the wings of these companies and make it so that it’s harder for them to operate in different places, where they have to be smaller,’ then there are plenty of other companies out that are willing and able to take the place of the work that we’re doing.
When asked if he specifically meant Chinese companies, Zuckerberg doubled down, saying (emphasis added):
Yeah. And they do not share the values that we have. I think you can bet that if the government hears word that it’s election interference or terrorism, I don’t think Chinese companies are going to wanna cooperate as much and try to aid the national interest there.
This April, Zuckerberg went deeper when he described how Facebook would refuse to comply with data localization laws in countries with poor track records on human rights. The CEO explained the risk of data being stored in other countries, which is precisely what might happen if regulators hamper Facebook and innovation happens elsewhere. Zuckerberg told philosopher Yuval Harari that (emphasis added):
When I look towards the future, one of the things that I just get very worried about is the values that I just laid out [for the internet and data] are not values that all countries share. And when you get into some of the more authoritarian countries and their data policies, they’re very different from the kind of regulatory frameworks that across Europe and across a lot of other places, people are talking about or put into place . . . And the most likely alternative to each country adopting something that encodes the freedoms and rights of something like GDPR, in my mind, is the authoritarian model, which is currently being spread, which says every company needs to store everyone’s data locally in data centers and then, if I’m a government, I can send my military there and get access to whatever data I want and take that for surveillance or military.
I just think that that’s a really bad future. And that’s not the direction, as someone who’s building one of these internet services, or just as a citizen of the world, I want to see the world going. If a government can get access to your data, then it can identify who you are and go lock you up and hurt you and your family and cause real physical harm in ways that are just really deep.
Facebook’s newly hired head of communications, Nick Clegg, told reporters back in January that (emphasis added):
These are of course legitimate questions, but we don’t hear so much about China, which combines astonishing ingenuity with the ability to process data on a vast scale without the legal and regulatory constraints on privacy and data protection that we require on both sides of the Atlantic . . . [and this data could be] put to more sinister surveillance ends, as we’ve seen with the Chinese government’s controversial social credit system.
In response to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ call that Facebook should be broken up, Clegg wrote in May that “Facebook shouldn’t be broken up — but it does need to be held to account. Anyone worried about the challenges we face in an online world should look at getting the rules of the internet right, not dismantling successful American companies.”
He hammered home the alternative the next month during a speech in Berlin (emphasis added):
If we in Europe and America don’t turn off the white noise and begin to work together, we will sleepwalk into a new era where the internet is no longer a universal space but a series of silos where different countries set their own rules and authoritarian regimes soak up their citizens’ data while restricting their freedom . . . If the West doesn’t engage with this question quickly and emphatically, it may be that it isn’t ours to answer. The common rules created in our hemisphere can become the example the rest of the world follows.
COO Sheryl Sandberg made the point most directly in an interview with CNBC in May (emphasis added):
You could break us up, you could break other tech companies up, but you actually don’t address the underlying issues people are concerned about . . . While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States about the size and power of Chinese tech companies and the … realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.
Indeed, China does not share the United States’ values on individual freedoms and privacy. And yes, breaking up Facebook could weaken its products like WhatsApp, providing more opportunities for apps like Chinese tech giant Tencent’s WeChat to proliferate.
But letting Facebook off the hook won’t solve the problems China’s influence poses to an open and just internet. Framing the issue as “strong regulation lets China win” creates a false dichotomy. There are more constructive approaches if Zuckerberg seriously wants to work with the government on exporting freedom via the web. And the distrust Facebook has accrued through the mistakes it’s made in the absence of proper regulation arguably do plenty to hurt the perception of how American ideals are spread through its tech companies.
Breaking up Facebook may not be the answer, especially if it’s done in retaliation for its wrong-doings instead of as a coherent way to prevent more in the future. To that end, a better approach might be stopping future acquisitions of large or rapidly growing social networks, forcing it to offer true data portability so existing users have the freedom to switch to competitors, applying proper oversight of its privacy policies and requiring a slow rollout of Libra with testing in each phase to ensure it doesn’t screw consumers, enable terrorists or jeopardize the world economy.
Resorting to scare tactics shows that it’s Facebook that’s scared. Years of growth over safety strategy might finally catch up with it. The $5 billion FTC fine is a slap on the wrist for a company that profits more than that per quarter, but a break-up would do real damage. Instead of fear-mongering, Facebook would be better served by working with regulators in good faith while focusing more on preempting abuse. Perhaps it’s politically savvy to invoke the threat of China to stoke the worries of government officials, and it might even be effective. That doesn’t make it right.
Facebook launches rap app – TechCrunch
Facebook unveils another experimental app, Atlassian acquires a data visualization startup and Newsela becomes a unicorn. This is your Daily Crunch for February 26, 2021.
The big story: Facebook launches rap app
The new BARS app was created by NPE Team (Facebook’s internal R&D group), allowing rappers to select from professionally created beats, and then create and share their own raps and videos. It includes autotune and will even suggest rhymes as you’re writing the lyrics.
This marks NPE Team’s second musical effort — the first was the music video app Collab. (It could also be seen as another attempt by Facebook to launch a TikTok competitor.) BARS is available in the iOS App Store in the U.S., with Facebook gradually admitting users off a waitlist.
The tech giants
Atlassian is acquiring Chartio to bring data visualization to the platform — Atlassian sees Chartio as a way to really take advantage of the data locked inside its products.
Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight — Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.
Startups, funding and venture capital
Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn — If Newsela is doing its job right, its third-party content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers provide fresh, personalized material.
Tim Hortons marks two years in China with Tencent investment — The Canadian coffee and doughnut giant has raised a new round of funding for its Chinese venture.
Sources: Lightspeed is close to hiring a new London-based partner to put down further roots in Europe — According to multiple sources, Paul Murphy is being hired away from Northzone.
Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch
In freemium marketing, product analytics are the difference between conversion and confusion — Considering that most freemium providers see fewer than 5% of free users move to paid plans, even a slight improvement in conversion can translate to significant revenue gains.
As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings — With buy-now-pay-later options, consumers turn a one-time purchase into a limited string of regular payments.
(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)
Jamaica’s JamCOVID pulled offline after third security lapse exposed travelers’ data — JamCOVID was set up last year to help the government process travelers arriving on the island.
AT&T is turning DirecTV into a standalone company — AT&T says it will own 70% of the new company, while private equity firm TPG will own 30%.
How to ace the 1-hour, and ever-elusive, pitch presentation at TC Early Stage — Norwest’s Lisa Wu has a message for founders: Think like a VC during your pitch presentation.
The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.
Yelp puts trust and safety in the spotlight – TechCrunch
Yelp released its very first trust and safety report this week, with the goal of explaining the work that it does to crack down on fraudulent and otherwise inaccurate or unhelpful content.
With focus on local business reviews and information, you might think Yelp would be relatively free of the types of misinformation that other social media platforms struggle with. But of course, Yelp reviews are high stakes in their own way, since they can have a big impact on a business’ bottom line.
Like other online platforms, Yelp relies on a mix of software and human curation. On the software side, one of the main tasks is sorting reviews into recommended and not recommended. Group Product Manager for Trust and Safety Sudheer Someshwara told me that a review might not be recommended because it appears to be written by someone with a conflict of interest, or it might be solicited by the business, or it might come from a user who hasn’t posted many reviews before and “we just don’t know enough information about the user to recommend those reviews to our community.”
“We take fairness and integrity very seriously,” Someshwara said. “No employee at Yelp has the ability to override decisions the software has made. That even includes the engineers.”
He added, “We treat every business the same, whether they’re advertising with us or not.”
So the company says that last year, users posted more than 18.1 million reviews, of which 4.6 million (about 25%) were not recommended by the software. Someshwara noted that even when a review is not recommended, it’s not removed entirely — users just have to seek it out in a separate section.
Removals do happen, but that’s one of the places where the user operations team comes in. As Vice President of Legal, Trust & Safety Aaron Schur explained, “We do make it easy for businesses as well as consumers to flag reviews. Every piece of content that’s flagged in that way does get reviewed by a live human to decide whether it should should be removed violating our guidelines.”
Yelp says that last year, about 710,000 reviews (4%) were removed entirely for violating the company’s policies. Of those, more than 5,200 were removed for violating the platform’s COVID-19 guidelines (among other things, they prohibit reviewers from claiming they contracted COVID from a business, or from complaining about mask requirements or that a business had to close due to safety regulations). Another 13,300 were removed between May 25 and the end of the year for threats, lewdness, hate speech or other harmful content.
“Any current event that takes place will find its way onto Yelp,” acknowledged Vice President of User Operations Noorie Malik. “People turn to Yelp and other social media platforms to have a voice.”
But expressing political beliefs can conflict with what Malik said is Yelp’s “guiding principle,” namely “genuine, first-hand experience.” So Yelp has built software to detect unusual activity on a page and will also add a Consumer Alert when it believes there are “egregious attempts to manipulate ratings and reviews.” For example, it says there was a 206% increase in media-fueled incidents year-over-year.
It’s not that you can’t express political opinions in your reviews, but the review has to come from first-hand experience, rather than being prompted by reading a negative article or an angry tweet about the business. Sometimes, she added, that means the team is “removing content with a point of view that we agree with.”
One example that illustrates this distinction: Yelp will take down reviews that seem driven by media coverage suggesting that a business owner or employee behaved in a racist manner, but at the same time, it also labeled two businesses in December 2020 with a “Business Accused of Racism” alert reflecting “resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions from a business owner or employee.”
Beyond looking at individual reviews and spikes in activities, Someshwara said Yelp will also perform “sting operations” to find groups that are posting fraudulent reviews.
In fact, his team apparently shut down 1,200 user accounts associated with review rings and reported nearly 200 groups to other platforms. And it just rolled out an updated algorithm designed to better detect and un-recommend reviews coming from those groups.
Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US – TechCrunch
Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.
Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.
In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.
Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well as Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.
Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.
Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.
Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.
Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.
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