Urban unicorn renewal

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Three cities, three dead urban unicorn renewal projects.

In just the past few days, we’ve had Foxconn renege on Wisconsin, Amazon renege on NYC and GE renege on Boston. Each followed the Anna Karenina principle that every unhappy economic development deal is unhappy in its own way: for Foxconn, it was trade tariffs and slowing iPhone sales; for Amazon, it was populist protests plus the usual NYC corruption; for GE, it was the reality of looking at a mirror and finding that you’re staring at a dumpster fire.

Yet, there are eerie similarities, other than the fact that I have practically lived next door to every single one of these projects (if you call Wisconsin next door to the better-looking state of Minnesota).

In each case, there was the perfect alchemy of the modern urban unicorn renewal plan. A well-known but sordid tech company paints a picture of revolutionizing a city’s economic base. They splash huge numbers on the board, or at least a coveted status symbol. Seeing their legacies secured, politicians latch on to these projects, negotiating with alacrity and without due process because — wow — the company with suicide nets or the company where employees pee in bottles (undercover!) is coming to town.

I get it. And look, if these projects panned out, they would indeed be great for their home cities. As I wrote about Amazon HQ2 a few weeks ago:

These spillover effects are at the heart of agglomeration economies. With Amazon’s arrival, more software engineers will locate to NYC. They will start companies, join other tech firms and expand the vitality of the community. As Edward Glaeser argues convincingly in his book The Triumph of the City, density of talent matters enormously for the success of the city. Amazon thickens the market for tech talent, and that is a huge win for both NYC and DC.

Yet, these projects rarely work out, and behind this all is the plague of Silicon Everywhere. As I wrote four years ago:

There are many commentators who argue that there is a bubble in Silicon Valley today. They may or may not be right, but there is certainly a bubble in places named after the preeminent global tech ecosystem.

Silicon Border. Silicon Hills. Silicon Steppe. Silicon Prairie. Silicon Roundabout. Silicon Gulf. Silicon Avenue. Silicon Canal. Silicon Alley. Silicon Beach. Silicon Forest. Philadelphia has a groaner of a region with Philicon Valley (whoever invented this should be banished from marketing for five years or forced to market Path).

And so we got “Wisconn Valley,” which actually is a brilliant fusion of Foxconn, Silicon and Wisconsin that now has its very own government homepage. GE was going to restart Boston’s tech scene, except the 800 jobs in its headquarters office were predominantly accountants and lawyers, which of course is where the real innovation of any company takes place.

These silicon dreams need to be crushed, beaten, stamped out and destroyed. So should these mega-project economic development deals, which always seem to go through a cycle from euphoria to lassitude.

In their wake, tech leaders should be encouraging a culture of bottoms-up economic development. Mayors should partner with local startups to encourage the growth of small companies and then coordinate pathways to help them succeed. Economic development money should turn into seed capital, boot camp credits, university research transfer grants and a whole lot more options for small-scale — human-scale — interventions. The unicorn urban renewal project is dead, but it always has been.

Welcome to the Extra Crunch Daily

Image via Flickr by Prayitno used under Creative Commons

Assuming you haven’t unsubscribed yet, welcome to the new Extra Crunch Daily newsletter, which is stochastically delivered to you “daily” depending on the misery index of my morning commute courtesy of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo.

We have been A/B-ing this format a bit over the past few months, and have talked about the future of geoengineering, power politics of GPS, societal resilience startups, the disappearing Form D filing, Softbank’s debt obsession, the internet’s transformation into a nation state and why TechCrunch’s parent company is … well, I shouldn’t say that, lest I kick that damn hornet’s nest again.

This newsletter is about context, big ideas and arguments. It’s also about touching on any of the 35-odd spaces that I seem to cover in a given day, so it’s basically professional ADHD in written format. I write when I am in that liminal space between curiosity and anger, that “Why??” which follows “What!!!”

I’m joined on this project by Arman Tabatabai, our intrepid research consultant from New York. He’s always willing to learn a completely new subject because I had a dream last night (Monday morning at 8am: “so what do you know about geoengineering?”), and for that he’s amazing and this newsletter couldn’t go on without him.

Patreon EC-1 and the challenge of private companies

We debuted Extra Crunch this week with the launch of Patreon’s EC-1. I was inspired by the S-1 that companies file with the SEC when going public and thought: “why don’t we do that, but for private companies.”

A couple of hundred hours later, and that’s basically what we got with this first edition. With Patreon, TechCrunch’s media columnist Eric Peckham wrote a bonanza of analysis on the company’s founding story, product, business, thesis and competition, and he even threw in a reading guide so you can read everyone else’s coverage of the company. There are pretty generous pours of these articles in front of the paywall too, so do share them with colleagues.

The hope is that these projects can spark the imagination, give ideas around strategies and tactics that might work in a startup context and, of course, help evaluate the future of the company we are holding under the microscope.

We have three other companies in the hopper right now coming up in this series. Have ones you want to see covered? Think there could be an interesting deep dive we are missing? Hit reply and tell me — right now — or send me an email at danny@techcrunch.com.

Obsessions

This is an open agenda that I use to track what the hell I am writing about on a regular basis.

  • We are going to be talking India here, focused around the book “Billionaire Raj” by James Crabtree.
  • We have a lot to catch up on in the China world when the EC launch craziness dies down. Plus, we are covering The Next Factory of the World by Irene Yuan Sun.
  • Societal resilience and geoengineering are still top-of-mind.
  • Some more on metrics design and quantification.

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to danny@techcrunch.com.

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York.

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Amazon Moments lets developers reward customers with actual gifts, not just virtual ones

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App and web developers are always trying to figure out better ways of keeping their users engaged on their platforms for longer. Today, Amazon is launching a service that it hopes those developers will use to do just that. Amazon Moments — as it is called — will let developers create actions — “moments” — that it wants users to perform, such as watching several episodes of a series if its a streaming service; or taking out a subscription if its a news site — and giving users actual physical gifts in exchange for doing so.

The service is going live in 100 countries today, Amazon said. Items that are eligible to be gifted as part of the Moments scheme will come in a catalogue — Amazon said that there are “millions” of products in it already, both from Amazon and select third-party vendors — and will sit alongside other kinds of products that incentivize users to be more engaged in apps, games and other digital services such as virtual currencies and gift cards.

“This adds to the variety and lets developers do something they haven’t been able to do before,” said Amir Kabbara, Amazon’s head of Moments, in an interview.

He added that they are providing to be very effective so far in pilots that Amazon has run with a number of publishers and other developers — Washington Post, TikTok, Sony Crackle, Sesame Workshop, USA TODAY, Sago Mini, and Bell Canada were among the early testers — with customers on average two to three times more likely to complete actions versus test using virtual items.

While offering a “gift with purchase” is nothing new in the world of retail, it’s been a trickier proposition when it comes to online commerce, since then the company setting up the promotion has to handle the fulfilment of the gifts, and that may stray far from its core competency as a business. For Amazon, this simply maximises the infrastructure that the e-commerce giant has already built to run its own Marketplace, and it gives and another opportunity to sell items from that Marketplace.

Moments comes in the form of an API that the developer and marketing team can build into an app or website, and for now there are a couple of ways that a company can be flexible in terms of what actually gets gifted.

There can be a specific item as the reward — for example, the Washington Post offered Echo Dots to people who subscribed — or it can be a gift certificate towards the purchase of an item like a book, which then the customer gets to choose.

They pay for the service by way of CPA — cost per “action” — meaning only when the action is completed and the reward is redeemed. Amazon, as a result, gets two different revenue streams from this, as the Marketplace operator and as the exchange selling the marketing unit to the developer/marketer.

Moments can also be segmented by customer types. Amazon notes: “If keeping an active payer engaged is worth $50, you can set a high-value action and offer $40 headphone sets with a comfortable margin of error. In addition, customer targeting allows you to tailor rewards to the lifetime value of each user segment. You could offer a $5 reward to new users, a $25 reward to active payers, and a $200 reward to top spenders.”

Over time, it will be interesting to see if Amazon applies more of its personalisation prowess to the product.

Just as advertising — or visiting Amazon’s homepage — is an exercise in seeing how your interests are tracked and aggregated to present you with what you are most likely to buy, you could imagine Moments promotions that will know that I already own an Echo Dot (or two) and that what I probably really want is an Eero. Given Amazon’s wider ambitions to grow its advertising and adtech businesses, it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

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Daily Crunch: Apple’s subscription fix

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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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Apple’s iOS update makes it easier to get to your subscriptions

Moving the Manage Subscriptions menu so that it’s just one click away from your App Store profile might seem like a minor change, but it was needed: As more mobile apps have adopted subscriptions as a means of generating revenue, it’s become critical to ensure consumers know how to turn off their subscriptions.

Plus, Apple is expected to launch some subscriptions of its own, namely for its streaming video and news services.

2. Instagram confirms that a bug is causing follower counts to change

Don’t panic! Instagram says it’s “aware of an issue that is causing a change in account follower numbers for some people right now” and is “working to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

3. Autonomous truck startup TuSimple hits unicorn status in latest round

Today, TuSimple is taking three to five fully autonomous trips per day for customers on three different routes in Arizona.

4. Sixteen percent of US adults own a smartwatch

The latest figures out of NPD show a continued uptick in smartwatch sales here in the States. The category has been a rare bright spot in an overall flagging wearable space, and the new numbers show gains pretty much across the board.

5. JibJab, one of the first silly selfie video makers, acquired by private equity firm Catapult Capital

Founded in 1999 by brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis after they saw “an animated dancing doodie streaming over a 56K modem,” JibJab’s big break came during the 2004 presidential campaign, when its satirical “This Land” racked up more than 80 million views.

6. Eight Sleep unveils The Pod, a bed that’s smarter about temperature

Eight has been focused on bed temperature for a while, first by offering a smart mattress cover and then a smart mattress that allows owners to adjust the surface temperature and even set different temperatures for different sides of the bed. But The Pod goes even further, with a smart temperature mode that will change bed temperature throughout the night to improve your sleep.

7. Ubisoft and Mozilla team up to develop Clever-Commit, an AI coding assistant

Clever-Commit is an assistant that learns from your code base’s bug and regression data to analyze and flag potential new bugs as new code is committed.

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No, Tencent isn’t about to burn Reddit down

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Ahoy, it’s doom and gloom for Reddit after the company welcomed investment from Chinese censorship overlord Tencent.

Well, not quite.

The reality is, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. In recruiting the company behind one of the internet’s largest and vibrant social networks — chat app WeChat — and countless blockbuster games, Reddit has pulled off a major coup and banked a huge amount of cash, both of which can help it grow to the next level.

But, right now, reports in the U.S. are suggesting otherwise. You might have seen a range of negative stories surface in the past week following Reddit’s latest round of investment — first reported by TechCrunch — which is led by Tencent and values the company at $3 billion.

Triggered by a Gizmodo story last week, fear is being stoked that a deal with the “Chinese censorship powerhouse” could lead Reddit awry and bankrupt its morality, well, whatever of that it has left. Reddit users, not ones to be slow on humor, have already plastered the site with content that would be forbidden in China, including Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon character often used to represent Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Gizmodo referred to Tencent as “one of the most important architects of the Great Firewall,” and that’s a refrain that has been repeated in countless other reports.

I get it, it‘s a delicious irony; one of the lawless parts of the internet combining forces with a company that aggressively monitors and censors its users. Plus, Reddit is already blocked in China.

But, unfortunately for Gizmodo, the fears are overblown and its descriptions of Tencent are at best naive and at worst deliberately misguided.

China’s censorship system

Tencent is no “architect” of China’s Great Firewall internet censorship program. It’s one of a number of companies which, from its success, finds itself a prominent target for the government with little room to wiggle out.

Tencent sits in an awkward position, for sure. It is the largest internet company in China — it became the first $500 billion firm in Asia last year — and that makes it a core part of the government’s ongoing campaign to control Chinese internet space.

After an unprecedented crackdown on the Twitter-like service Weibo in 2012, when the government closed down comments for three days, China’s censorship became more proactive rather than reactive. That approach leaves fewer traces, for one thing, and it allows Beijing to shift responsibility to the platforms themselves, which fear the repercussions of angering authorities.

That’s to say that today’s dynamic sees China’s top internet companies, including Tencent, instructed to monitor the content produced by their users and, where necessary, remove it.

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman delivers remarks on “Redesigning Reddit” during the third day of Web Summit in Altice Arena on November 08, 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal. Web Summit.

Censoring social networks is one thing, but censoring WeChat — Tencent’s prized asset and China’s top messaging app with more than a billion monthly users — is another thing altogether. Tencent has been roundly (and rightly) criticized for implementing a range of “silent” blocks that, for some terms, prevent messages from being sent or picked up by the receiver.

Likewise, it has also purged millions of accounts from WeChat following numerous rounds of government-led initiatives that crack down on media, pornography and unsubstantiated rumors.

Those crackdowns and censorship moves are not false, but Gizmodo is painting a picture that suggests Tencent is complicit in cleaning its slate.

The truth is that the company, even a company of its size, has no choice in the matter when the Chinese government comes knocking with demands. To ignore the summons, or fail to act, would cause Tencent — a publicly listed company — serious problems that would not reflect well for shareholders. Adhering to these demands is expensive and resource-intensive, as it requires a new “content checking” division with specialist employees hired and trained. In short, it is certainly not something companies willingly opt-in to.

A rite of passage

Tencent is definitely not in control of the agenda, as anyone with an eye on tech in China can tell you. The company suffered a poor end to 2018, in part because the Chinese government decided to freeze new game licenses.

That left Tencent unable to monetize its new roster of games, a situation that saw it lose countless hundreds of millions in revenue and saw its share price drop by nearly 50 percent between March and October. The freeze has only just thawed, with a handful of licenses tentatively distributed this year.

So much for the Chinese government looking after their own.

These issues affect every tech company in China with a meaningful presence. Getting hit by government demands and censorship requests is a rite of passage for tech startups in China, like a dreaded badge of honor that shows your service has grown suitably influential to be considered a threat.

That happened to ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, the current social darling for many U.S. media. Last year, its CEO was forced to issue a groveling apology after it had “overemphasized growth and scale over quality and responsibility.”

The company resolved to increase its content checkers (read, censorship police) from 6,000 to 10,000 people, a move likely made to appease the government. Still, it was made an example of, with a number of TikTok apps removed from app stores and shuttered on the word of authorities.

Welcome to the club!

But it isn’t just Chinese companies.

Tencent became Asia’s first $500 billion company thanks to a stock rally — today it is worth around $425 billion [Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Choices

Apple, the self-proclaimed protector of freedom, removed every unlicensed VPN from its China-based App Store at the behest of the government in 2017. While, in a rare move that runs counter to its core privacy focus, it relented to state rules and agreed to store Chinese iCloud user data on Chinese soil, through a government-backed cloud service provider, no less.

The difference between Apple and the likes of Tencent and ByteDance is that the U.S. company has a choice. It entered China voluntarily and it has complied with free speech-quashing demands to keep its revenue flowing.

Tencent and ByteDance, as the biggest internet players, would have a tough time moving outside of their native China and remaining in business. Maybe, in today’s censorship-heavy era, some Chinese companies wish they had started out in Hong Kong or another domain, but few markets have the opportunity that comes with 800 million internet users.

The point is that they have no control over censorship demands and no leverage to push back. To blame them — and paint them as co-conspirators, even “architects” — is misleading.

Tencent, in fact, has a reputation as a skillful investor that can be an asset for non-Chinese companies.

Its capital and guidance helped Fortnite creator Epic Games completely revamp its business into the smash hit success that it is today. Elsewhere, Tencent is the largest single investor in Snap — CEO Evan Spiegel has said he often seeks its guidance — and its other deals include Tesla, Discord, Kik and more, none of which have resulted in the introduction of censorship.

Yes, Reddit and Tencent are strange bedfellows, but that’s exactly the point of venture capital. The best founders surround themselves with different opinions, perspectives and experiences to ensure that they are evaluating all possible strategies. Tencent can give Reddit unique insight which, for those who use it, can only be a net positive for the future health of Reddit’s business and continued service.

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C2A raises $6.5M for its in-car cybersecurity platform

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Cars are now essentially computers on wheels — and like every computer, they are susceptible to attacks. It’s no surprise then that there’s a growing number of startups that are working to protect a car’s internal systems from these hacks, especially given that the market for automotive cybersecurity could be worth over $900 billion by 2026.

One of these companies is Israel’s C2A Security, which offers an end-to-end security platform for vehicles, which today announced that it has raised a $6.5 million Series A funding round.

The round was led by Maniv Mobility, which previously invested in companies like Hailo, drive.ai and Turo, and ICV, which has invested in companies like Freightos and Vayyar. OurCrowd’s Labs/02 also participated in this round.

Like most companies at the Series A stage, C2A plans to use the new funding to grow its team, especially on the R&D side, and help support its customer base. Sadly, C2A does not currently talk about who its customers are.

The promise of C2A is that it offers a full suite of solutions to detect and mitigate attacks. The team behind the company has an impressive security pedigree, with the company’s CMO Nat Meron being an alumn of Israel’s Unit 8200 intelligence unit, for example. C2A founder and CEO Michael Dick previously co-founded NDS, a content security solution, which Cisco acquired for around $5 billion in 2012 (and then recently sold on to Permira, also for $5 billion).

“We are extremely proud to receive the support of such outstanding investors, who will bring tremendous value to the company,” said Dick. “Maniv’s expertise in autotech and strong network across the industry coupled with ICV’s rich experience in cybersecurity brings the perfect combination of skills to the table.”

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Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

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The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.



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Startups Weekly: Spotify gets acquisitive and Instacart screws up

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Did anyone else listen to season one of StartUp, Alex Blumberg’s OG Gimlet podcast? I did, and I felt like a proud mom this week reading stories of the major, first-of-its-kind Spotify acquisition of his podcast production company, Gimlet. Spotify also bought Anchor, a podcast monetization platform, signaling a new era for the podcasting industry.

On top of that, Himalaya, a free podcast app I’d never heard of until this week, raised a whopping $100 million in venture capital funding to “establish itself as a new force in the podcast distribution space,” per Variety.

The podcasting business definitely took center stage, but Lime and Bird made headlines, as usual, a new unicorn emerged in the mental health space and Instacart, it turns out, has been screwing its independent contractors.

As mentioned, Spotify, or shall we say Spodify, gobbled up Gimlet and Anchor. More on that here and a full analysis of the deal here. Key takeaway: it’s the dawn of podcasting; expect a whole lot more venture investment and M&A activity in the next few years.

This week’s biggest “yikes” moment was when reports emerged that Instacart was offsetting its wages with tips from customers. An independent contractor has filed a class-action lawsuit against the food delivery business, claiming it “intentionally and maliciously misappropriated gratuities in order to pay plaintiff’s wages even though Instacart maintained that 100 percent of customer tips went directly to shoppers.” TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey has the full story here, as well as Instacart CEO’s apology here.

Slack confidentially filed to go public this week, its first public step toward either an IPO or a direct listing. If it chooses the latter, like Spotify did in 2018, it won’t issue any new shares. Instead, it will sell existing shares held by insiders, employees and investors, a move that will allow it to bypass a roadshow and some of Wall Street’s exorbitant IPO fees. Postmates confidentially filed, too. The 8-year-old company has tapped JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America to lead its upcoming float.

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman delivers remarks on “Redesigning Reddit” during the third day of Web Summit in Altice Arena on November 08, 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Horacio Villalobos-Corbis/Contributor)

It was particularly tough to decide which deal was the most notable this week… But the winner is Reddit, the online platform for chit-chatting about niche topics — r/ProgMetal if you’re Crunchbase editor Alex Wilhelm . The company is raising up to $300 million at a $3 billion valuation, according to TechCrunch’s Josh Constine. Reddit has been around since 2005 and has raised a total of $250 million in equity funding. The forthcoming Series D round is said to be led by Chinese tech giant Tencent at a $2.7 billion pre-money valuation.

Runner up for deal of the week is Calm, the app that helps users reduce anxiety, sleep better and feel happier. The startup brought in an $88 million Series B at a $1 billion valuation. With 40 million downloads worldwide and more than one million paying subscribers, the company says it quadrupled revenue in 2018 from $20 million to $80 million and is now profitable — not a word you hear every day in Silicon Valley.

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to kate.clark@techcrunch.com or @KateClarkTweets

I listened to the Bird CEO’s chat with Upfront Ventures’ Mark Suster last week and wrote down some key takeaways, including the challenges of seasonality and safety in the scooter business. I also wrote about an investigation by Consumer Reports that found electric scooters to be the cause of more than 1,500 accidents in the U.S. I’m also required to mention that e-scooter unicorn Lime finally closed its highly anticipated round at a $2.4 billion valuation. The news came just a few days after the company beefed up its executive team with a CTO and CMO hire.

Databricks raises $250M at a $2.75B valuation for its analytics platform
Retail technology platform Relex raises $200M from TCV
Raisin raises $114M for its pan-European marketplace for savings and investment products
Self-driving truck startup Ike raises $52M
Signal Sciences secures $35M to protect web apps
Ritual raises $25M for its subscription-based women’s daily vitamin
Little Spoon gets $7M for its organic baby food delivery service
By Humankind picks up $4M to rid your morning routine of single-use plastic

We don’t spend a ton of time talking about the growing, venture-funded, tech-enabled logistics sector, but one startup in the space garnered significant attention this week. Turvo poached three key Uber Freight employees, including two of the unit’s co-founders. What’s that mean for Uber Freight? Well, probably not a ton… Based on my conversation with Turvo’s newest employees, Uber Freight is a rocket ship waiting to take off.

Who knew that investing in female-focused brands could turn a profit for investors? Just kidding, I knew that and this week I have even more proof! This is L., a direct-to-consumer, subscription-based retailer of pads, tampons and condoms made with organic materials sold to P&G for $100 million. The company, founded by Talia Frenkel, launched out of Y Combinator in August 2015. According to PitchBook, it was backed by Halogen Ventures, 500 Startups, Fusion Fund and a few others.

Speaking of ladies getting stuff done, Bessemer Venture Partners promoted Talia Goldberg to partner this week, making the 28-year-old one of the youngest investing partners at the Silicon Valley venture fund. Plus, Palo Alto’s Eclipse Ventures, hot off the heels of a $500 million fundraise, added two general partners: former Flex CEO Mike McNamara and former Global Foundries CEO Sanjay Jha.

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I chat about the expanding podcast industry, Reddit’s big round and scooter accidents.

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Luxury handbag marketplace Rebag raises $25M to expand to 30 more stores

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Rebag, an online resale marketplace for luxury handbags, is getting another infusion of capital as it prepares to expand its offline retail operations. The company this week announced $25 million in Series C funding, in a round led by private equity firm Novator, with participation from existing investors, General Catalyst and FJ Labs.

The round brings Rebag’s total raise to date to $52 million.

Rebag competes with other luxury goods resellers, like TheRealReal, and to some extent with broader resale marketplaces like thredUP or Poshmark, which also attract shoppers looking to buy quality pre-owned items. And it exists in alongside large marketplaces like eBay as well as rental shops like Rent the Runway, which offers an alternative to a site focused only on handbags.

In fact, Rebag founder and CEO Charles Gorra spent a brief period at Rent the Runway, before leaving to start Rebag in 2014. At the time, he said he saw an immediate opportunity to not just rent the items out, but to actually resell them on a secondary market.

Today, Rebag’s shop sells bags from over 50 designer brands, including all the majors like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, and others.

However, in the years following Rebag’s launch, the company has expand its offerings beyond just online resale to include brick-and-mortar retail and, more recently, a service called Rebag Infinity, which allows shoppers to turn in any Rebag handbag purchase within 6 months in exchange to receive a credit of at least 70 percent of the purchase price.

Last year, Rebag made headlines in the fashion world for selling the rare Hermès White Crocodile Himalayan Birkin collectible – typically an over $100,000 bag – for “just” $70,000, to celebrate the opening of its 57th Street and Madison Avenue store, its second Manhattan flagship location.

With the new funding, Rebag will expand its offline footprint, it says. The company currently operates five stores in New York and L.A. but plans to launch 30 more locations in the “medium term.” This will include both standalone storefronts, as well as presences within luxury malls.

It’s common these days for resale marketplaces these days to take their wares to offline shoppers. TheRealReal, Rent the Runway, ThredUP, and others all today offer real world locations, where shoppers can browse in person instead of just online.

Rebag says since it opened its retail stores las year, it moved from being a 100 percent digital operation to 80 percent digital, and 20 percent offline. Its sourcing network also grew to include over 20,000 stylists, partners, shoppers and sales associates.

With the funding, Rebag adds it will also refine its pricing and handbag evaluation tools aimed at standardizing the resale process, something that could represent another business for the brand (or make it attractive to an acquirer.)

“We are a technology company first,” noted founder and CEO Charles Gorra, in a statement. “Our goal is to become the standard for the luxury resale industry, just like Kelley Blue Book is the main resource for the auto industry.”

The company plans also to triple its team of 100, which today includes newer hires CTO Jay Winters (Delivery.com, Goldman Sachs) and CMO Elizabeth Layne (Bonobos, Appear Here).

Rebag doesn’t share its hard numbers about sales, revenues, valuation, customer base or others, but told us it has tripled revenues since its Series B.

 


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Arnaud Thiercelin and Laura Major will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI April 18 at UC Berkeley

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Just over two months out, and our third TC Sessions: Robotics + AI event is shaping up to be another good one. We’ve already announced Anca Dragan, Alexei Efros, Hany Farid, Melonee Wise, Peter Barrett and Rana el Kaliouby. We’ve got some great demos planned for the event, as well — you can still get in on that by filling out our survey here.

Meantime, we’ve got a pair of new names to announce for the April 18th event, both representing major players in the drone category. Arnaud Thiercelin and Laura Major will both be returning to our stage after taking part in a successful drone panel at the last Disrupt.

As the Head of U.S. R&D at DJI, Arnaud Thiercelin helps lead developer technologies and enterprise solutions for the world’s largest drone manufacturer. Prior to joining DJI, Thiercelin lead iOS development at finance company Enova International and cofounded computer software company, Flying Pig.

Laura Major is the CTO of Aria Insights, a newly launched startup dedicated to using AI to analyze drone data collection. Aria represents a new focus for tethered drone company Cyphy Works, where Major also served as CTO. Prior to this, she worked as division leader at not-for-profit research and development defense and space company, Draper. 

Early Bird tickets are on sale now for $249. That’s $100 savings before prices go up. Book your tickets here. Students can save 90% on tickets when you book here.

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Pluto TV will expand its free service with paid subscriptions, says new owner Viacom

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Last month, Viacom picked up free streaming service Pluto TV for $340 million in cash. This week, the company spoke in more detail about its plans for Pluto TV – including its potential to for ad-supported streaming as well as the ability to market Viacom’s various subscription video properties directly to consumers, similar to how Amazon Channels works today.

At the time of the acquisition, Pluto TV offered over 100 channels of free content from 130 partners, and reached 12 million monthly users – many of whom are younger, and never intend to subscribe to traditional pay TV, like cable or satellite.

While Pluto TV built its brand on offering access “free TV,” Viacom sees the service not only as a way to grow an ad-supported video business, but also a way to upsell those free customers to paid subscription video products.

Viacom isn’t the only brand to have realized in recent months that a good number of consumers are uninterested in paying for TV and movies, when there are so many free alternatives for entertainment available on today’s web – including most notably, YouTube’s massive ad-supported video network, and to a lesser extent, the video offerings from places like Facebook Watch, and even those from social apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

That’s led many in the industry to launch their own, free and ad-supported video destinations. This includes Amazon’s recent debut of IMDb’s Freedive; Roku’s free TV and movie app known as The Roku Channel; Sling TV’s teaser package of free content for non-subscribers; and Walmart’s now over two-year old Vudu “Movies On Us;” among others. Plex also recently said it will venture into this area in 2019.

Viacom believes Pluto TV will give it a leg up in this growing ad-supported video market, explained Viacom CEO Robert Bakish, in a call with investors.

“We believe the majority of the Pluto TV audience is not watching pay-TV today. This segment already exists, so it makes sense for us – as Viacom – to take share,” he said. “Given the segmenting of the market, distributors need a free TV offering.”

The idea is that the free TV offered by Pluto TV will continue to attract consumers to the service. And Pluto TV will become more attractive on this front as Viacom adds its own content to the service – including all the programming it has been holding back from other subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services over the years.

“Our strategic decision to curtail large-scale library licensing to the SVOD players over the last couple of years – it cost us some money in fiscal 2017 and 2018 – but it means that we have large volumes of content to bring to bear now once we close the Pluto transaction,” Bakish noted.

In particular, the content Viacom plans to bring to Pluto TV spans genres like “kids, African-American, reality and comedy,” the company said.

Pluto TV will also gain access to Viacom’s marketing capabilities to grow its audience and its infrastructure, allowing the service to expand globally.

Meanwhile, Pluto TV offers advertisers an attractive audience, as it’s capable of reaching younger viewers who are opting out of pay TV, Viacom believes. Half of Pluto’s users today are ages 18 to 34, and the majority watch the service’s content on their TV’s big screen, thanks to Pluto’s integrations with smart TVs like those from Samsung and Vizio.

“It will provide a rapidly growing source of billions of monthly advanced TV impressions in young and hard-to-reach demos in a premium and safe environment,” said Bakish.

By noting that Pluto TV content would be “safe,” Bakish is taking a pointed dig at YouTube, which has struggled to police its user-gen content in a way that made it safe for advertisers, which even resulted in a brand freeze over ads in 2017. This is still a big concern for YouTube, CEO Susan Wojcicki said this week a letter to the YouTube community.

Last year, YouTube saw “how the bad actions of a few individuals can negatively impact the entire creator ecosystem,” wrote Wojcicki. “And that’s why we put even more focus on responsible growth,” she added.

In addition to the poor taste in programming choices made by various creators, at times, YouTube and more recently Roku, have also had to weigh decisions about how much extremist content they want to host in the name of being an open platform. The risk that comes with that is a significant impact to their bottom line as advertisers flee, the companies have found.

Viacom noted that Pluto TV’s ad inventory is today undersold – today, the company’s sales team sells less than 50 percent of ad space. That leaves room for growth.

In addition to free streaming, Viacom plans to use Pluto TV to grow its paid subscriber base, as well.

Through Pluto TV, Viacom will offer customers the chance to add on paid subscriptions to their account, Bakish said – a strategy employed today by Amazon and Roku.

These add-ons will include those for Viacom’s subscription products like Noggin, aimed at parents of preschoolers; Comedy Central Now; and the company’s newest subscription, NickHits, the CEO said. (The latter targets older kids and recently arrived on Amazon Channels.)

Viacom said the Pluto TV deal would boost revenue in 2019, but will be “slightly dilutive” to earnings. Viacom experts the deal to close in March.

The company reported a mixed quarter, with revenue of $3.09 billion that fell short of Wall Street forecasts, an earnings per share at $1.12 which beat analyst expectations.

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