Google intros a pair of Android accessibility features for people with hearing loss

Google this morning unveiled a pair of new Android features for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. As the company notes in a blog post this morning, the WHO estimates that 900 million people will be living with heading loss by 2055. The ubiquity of mobile devices — Android in particular — offers a promising potential to help open the lines of communication.

Live Transcribe is, perhaps, the more compelling of the two offerings. As its name implies, the feature transcribes audio in real-time, so users with hearing loss can read text, in order to enable a live, two-way conversation. It defaults to white text on a black background, making it easier to read and can also connect to external microphones for better results.

The feature leverages much of the company’s work in speech to text and translation. It starts rolling out today in limited beta for Pixel 3 users. It will be available in more than 70 languages and dialects.

Announced back at last year’s Google I/O, Sound Amplifier is designed to filter out ambient and unwanted noises, without boosting the volume on already loud sounds. The feature works with headphones, letting users manually adjust the settings for the right fit. That one is available now via the Play Store.

Daily Crunch: Facebook fallout continues

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1. We dismantle Facebook’s memo defending its ‘Research’

The fallout continues following TechCrunch reporting about a Facebook app that was paying people to collect a huge swath of data from their phones. For one thing, a new memo from Facebook’s VP of production engineering and security provides more detail about exactly what data Facebook was trying to collect from teens and adults in the U.S. and India.

We also learned that like Facebook, Google was using Apple enterprise certificates to circulate a consumer-facing data collection app — leading Apple to shut down, then restore access to Google’s internal iOS apps.

2. Amazon and Flipkart pull 100,000s of products to comply with new Indian law

Amazon has been forced to pull an estimated 400,000 products in India after new regulation limiting e-commerce businesses went into force in the country. And Flipkart could pull as many as one-quarter of its products in order to comply with the rule, according to analysis from consulting firm Technopak.

3. Apple fixes FaceTime eavesdrop bug, with software update incoming

“We have fixed the Group FaceTime security bug on Apple’s servers and we will issue a software update to re-enable the feature for users next week,” the company said.

4. H-1B changes will simplify application process

Danny Crichton does some table-napkin math to conclude that the changes will likely benefit advanced degree holders, while diminishing the chances for regular applicants.

5. Kleiner Perkins gets back to early-stage with its $600M 18th fund

The firm, which was recently rocked by the departure of legendary investor Mary Meeker, says it’s going “back to the future” with a focus on early-stage deals.

6. Amazon reports better than expected Q4, but lowers Q1 guidance

The online retail giant reported $72.4 billion in Q4 revenue, topping last year’s $60.45 billion and besting the analysts’ forecast of $71.92 billion. Amazon Web Services also played a key role, with a massive $2.2 billion operating income.

7. Vice Media will lay off 10 percent of its staff

Vice is the latest digital media company to announce major cuts. The goal is to allow Vice to focus on growth areas like branded content and film and TV production.

Pandora-powered channels will come to SiriusXM’s app this year

SiriusXM this week offered a few more details on how it plans to leverage its newest asset, Pandora, following its $3.5 billion acquisition of the streaming music service last year, which officially closed on Friday. At the time of the deal, the company spoke about the potential for cross-promotion opportunities between the services and new subscription packages. Now, those efforts are getting off the ground — starting with a promotion within the Pandora app for SiriusXM subscriptions, followed by the launch of Pandora channels within the SiriusXM app.

Currently, SiriusXM offers a variety of programming packages, ranging from a cheaper ($11/mo) “Mostly Music” sampling of channels all the way up to a premium “All Access” ($21/mo) subscription. It also runs various time-limited promotions that offer its service for as little as $5 per month for a set period, like six months.

According to Sirius XM CEO James Meyer — speaking to investors on the Q4 earnings call on Wednesday — the company will now start promoting special SiriusXM packages to Pandora listeners.

The company, he said, intends “to capitalize on cross-promotion opportunities between SiriusXM’s more than 36 million subscribers across North America and Pandora’s approximately 70 million monthly active users. In early February, we will begin a targeted promotion to SiriusXM subscribers and Pandora listeners,” he noted. “Select Pandora listeners will receive an offer to obtain a unique $5 a month ‘Mostly News,’ ‘Mostly Music’ or ‘News Talk’ [SiriusXM subscription] package in their satellite-equipped vehicle.”

In other words, SiriusXM will be pushing low-cost $5 per month streaming plans within the Pandora app itself.

The company believes the cross-promotions will be successful because of the overlap in the two services’ customer bases. It found that approximately half of the owners of the SiriusXM-enabled vehicle fleet of 100 million cars have used Pandora in the past two years, for example. SiriusXM aims to leverage those Pandora listeners’ data in order to convert, retain or bring them back to SiriusXM.

In addition, the exec said that existing SiriusXM subscribers would receive extended 14-day trials to Pandora’s Premium service.

By mid-2019, the company plans to launch a new Pandora-powered channel within its own SiriusXM app, based on their favorite artist. It will also add a new radio channel to the SiriusXM app that’s driven by the latest trends from Pandora’s “billions of thumbs” — meaning the “thumbs up” (likes), songs receive within the streaming app.

Meyer spoke briefly about the challenges facing Pandora — specifically a decline in listening hours, which SiriusXM believes can be fixed by improving Pandora’s in-car listening statistics, making the Pandora app more compelling, and adding more content.

“This is just the beginning. We expect, over time, to create new, unique audio packages that will bring together the best of both services, creating a powerful platform for artists to reach their fans and to create new audiences,” said Meyer.

The merger of the two companies has not been without upheaval, though.

This week, the company announced that Pandora CEO Roger Lynch and other executives would be stepping down, including general counsel Steve Bene, CFO Naveen Chopra and chief human resources officer Kristen Robinson. Meyer will instead lead the combined company, he said, in order to streamline decision-making and increase the speed of the integrations.

SiriusXM reported record revenues for the fourth quarter and year, at $1.5 billion and $5.8 billion, respectively. Net income was $251 million for the quarter, up from a loss of $37 million in the year-ago period. Full-year 2018 net income grew 81 percent to a record $1.2 billion.

The newly combined company will have more than 100 million listeners in North America, with nearly 40 million self-paying subscribers and more than 75 million on trials or using ad-based products.

Step targets teens and parents with a no-fees mobile bank account and Visa card

A new mobile banking startup called Step wants to help bring teenagers and other young adults into the cashless era. Today, cash is used less often, as more consumers shop online and send money to one another through payment apps like Venmo. But teenagers in particular are still heavily burdened with cash — even though they, too, want to spend their money on things that require a payment card, like Amazon.com purchases or mobile gaming, for example.

That’s where Step comes in.

The company aims to address the needs of what it believes is an underserved market in mobile banking — the 75 million children and young adults under the age of 21 in the U.S., who are still being forced to use cash.

This market isn’t the “unbanked,” it’s the “pre-banked,” explains Step CEO CJ MacDonald, whose previous startup, mobile gift card platform Gyft, sold to First Data several years ago.

Above: Step CEO, CJ MacDonald

“We’re building an all-in-one banking solution that primarily focuses on teens and parents,” he says. “We want it to be a teen’s first bank account. We want to be a teen’s first spending card. And we want to teach financial literacy and responsibility firsthand.”

MacDonald, along with CTO Alexey Kalinichenko, previously of Square and financial services startup Token, founded Step in May 2018. The 10-person team also includes several prior Gyft employees.

Last summer, Step closed on $3.8 million in seed funding from Sesame Ventures, Crosslink Capital and Collaborative Fund. Crosslink general partner Eric Chin sits on the board.

While there are a number of mobile banking apps out there today — like Chime, Monzo, Simple, Revolut and others — Step will specifically target teens, 13 and up, and other young adults with its marketing. Teens under 18 still need parents’ approval to sign up, of course. But the goal is to encourage the teens to bring the idea to their parents — not the other way around.

Step’s focus on this younger demographic puts it in a different space, where there are fewer competitors. Its more direct rivals are not the bigger mobile banks, but rather startups like teen debit card and bank app Current, or the parent-managed debit card for kids from Greenlight.

The mobile banking service Step provides will also aim to be more comprehensive than just a debit card. It will offer a combination of checking, savings and a Visa card that works as both credit and debit.

The card includes Visa’s Zero Liability Protection on all purchases from unauthorized use, and allows parents to set spending limits.

Parents will also be able to connect their own bank accounts to Step to instantly transfer in funds, which can then be distributed to kids’ accounts for things like allowances and chores, or other everyday spending needs. Step’s bank account itself is backed by Evolve Bank, so it’s FDIC-insured up to $250,000.

Unlike Current, which charges a subscription to use its service, Step aims to be a fee-free bank for consumers. Users don’t have to pay for their account, and there are no fees for things like overdrafts. Instead, Step’s plan is to generate revenue through traditional means — like interchange fees and by way of lending practices, once it has established a deposit base.

The company pays a 2.5 percent interest rate on deposits, offers a round-up savings feature and a range of budgeting tools and supports free instant transfers between Step accounts. It also provides access to a network of 35,000 ATMs with no fees.

Beyond simply facilitating mobile banking, Step’s bigger goal is to teach teens to become financially responsible.

“Schools do not teach kids about money. A lot of families don’t talk about money. And it’s a crucial life skill that’s not really addressed properly when people are growing up,” says MacDonald, who says he was lacking in life skills in this area, even as a young college grad.

“There were ‘Money 101’ skills that I had not learned — that no one had talked to me about. Things like building credit, how many credit cards you should have, debt to income ratio,” he continues. “A lot of people get released into the real world without experience [in those areas],” he says.

Long-term, after solving the needs associated with everyday banking transactions, Step wants to layer on other products and services — like tools that allow a family to save together for college, for example.

The company is launching the banking service under an invite-only system to scale up.

Today, it’s opening a waitlist and referral program. When you invite a friend, you each receive one dollar. Access will then be rolled out on a first-come, first-serve basis this spring. Users can join Step through the website, iOS or Android application.

Poor smartphones sales drag LG to first quarterly loss in 2 years

We’ve written extensively about LG’s struggling mobile business, which has suffered at the hands of aggressive Chinese Android makers, and now that unit has dragged its parent company into posting its first quarterly loss for two years.

The Korean electronics giant is generally in good health — it posted a $2.4 billion profit for 2018 — but its smartphone business’s failings saw it post a loss in Q4 2018, its first quarterly negative since Q4 2016.

Overall, the company posted a KRW 75.7 billion ($67.1 million) operating loss as revenue slid seven percent year-on-year to KRW 15.77 trillion ($13.99 billion). LG said the change was “primarily due to lower sales of mobile products.”

We’ve known for some time that LG’s mobile business is strugglingthe division got another new head last November — but things went from bad to worse in Q4. LG Mobile saw revenue fall by 42 percent to reach KRW 1.71 trillion, $1.51 billion. The operating loss for the period grew to KRW 322.3 billion, or $289.8 million, from KRW 216.3 billion, $194 million, one year previous.

Over the full year, LG Mobile posted a $700 million loss (KRW 790.1 billion) but the company claimed things are improving thanks to “better material cost controls and overhead efficiencies based on the company’s platform modularization strategy.”

LG used CES to showcase a range of home entertainment products — that division is doing far better than mobile, with a record annual profit of $1.35 billion in 2018 — so we’ll have to wait until Mobile World Congress in February to see exactly what LG has in mind. Already, though, we have a suggestion, and it isn’t exactly set-the-world-on-fire stuff.

“LG’s mobile division will push 5G products and smartphones featuring different form factors while focusing on key markets where the LG brand remains strong,” the company said in a statement.

It will certainly take something very special to turn things around. It seems more likely that LG Mobile head Brian Kwon — who also heads up that hugely profitable home entertainment business — will focus on cutting costs and squeezing out the few sweet spots left. Continued losses, particularly against success from other units, might eventually see LG shutter its mobile business.

Still, things could be worse for LG — it could be HTC.

Nintendo’s Mario Kart mobile game won’t launch until the summer

It’s been a long year for Nintendo fans waiting on Mario Kart Tour to come to mobile and, unfortunately, more patience is required after the game’s launch was moved back to this summer.

Nintendo announced plans to bring the much-loved franchise to smartphones one year ago. It was originally slated to launch by the end of March 2019, but the Japanese games giant said today it is pushing that date back to summer 2019.

The key passage sits within Nintendo’s latest earnings report, released today, which explains that additional time is needed “to improve [the] quality of the application and expand the content offerings after launch.”

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It’s frustrating but, as The Verge points out, you can refer to a famous Nintendo phrase if you are seeking comfort.

Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Mario and Zelda franchises, once remarked that “a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”

There’s plenty riding on the title — excuse the pun. Super Mario Run, the company’s first major game for the iPhone, showed its most popular IP has the potential to be a success on mobile, even though Mario required a $9.99 payment to go beyond the limited demo version. Mario Kart is the most successful Switch title to date, so it figures that it can be a huge smash on mobile if delivered in the right way.

Samsung posts fourth-quarter profit drop, warns of weak demand until the second half of 2019

Samsung Electronics reported its largest quarterly profit decline in two years during its earnings report today. As the Galaxy maker warned in its earnings guidance earlier this month, its results were hurt by slower-than-expected demand for semiconductors, which had bolstered its earnings in previous quarters even when smartphone sales were slow.

Samsung’s forecast was also dour, at least for the first half of the year. It said annual earnings will decline thanks to continuing weak demand for chips, but expects demand for memory products and OLED panels to improve during the second half.

The company’s fourth-quarter operating profit was 10.8 trillion won (about $9.7 billion), a 28.7 percent decrease from the 15.15 trillion won it recorded in the same period one year ago. Revenue was 59.27 trillion won, a 10.2 percent drop year over year.

Broken out by business, Samsung’s semiconductor unit recorded quarterly operating profit of 7.8 trillion won, down from 10.8 trillion won a year ago. Its mobile unit’s operating profit was 1.5 trillion won, compared to 2.4 trillion won a year ago.

Smartphone makers, including Samsung rival Apple, have been hit hard by slowing smartphone sales around the world, especially in China. Upgrade cycles are also becoming longer as customers wait to buy newer models.

This hurt both Samsung’s smartphone and chip sales, as “overall market demand for NAND and DRAM drop[ped] due to macroeconomic uncertainties and adjustments in inventory levels by customers including data center companies and smartphone makers,” said the company’s earnings report.

Samsung expects chip sales to be sluggish during the first quarter because of weak seasonality and inventory adjustments by its biggest customers. The company was optimistic about the last two quarters of 2019, when it expects demand for chips and OLED panels to pick up thanks to seasonal demand and customers finishing their inventory adjustments.

Facebook shares shoot up after strong Q4 earnings despite data breach

Facebook managed to beat Wall Street’s estimates in its Q4 earnings amidst a constant beatdown in the press. Facebook hit 2.32 billion monthly users, up 2.2 percent from 2.27 billion last quarter, speeding up its growth rate. Facebook climbed to 1.52 billion daily active users from 1.49 billion last quarter for a 2 percent growth rate that dwarfed last quarter’s 1.36 percent.

Facebook earned $16.91 billion off all those users with a $2.38 GAAP earnings per share. Those numbers handily beat Wall Street’s expectations of $16.39 billion in revenue and $2.18 GAAP earnings per share, plus 2.32 billion monthly and 1.51 billion daily active users. Facebook’s daily to monthly user ratio, or stickiness, held firm at 66 percent where it’s stayed for years, showing those still on Facebook aren’t using it much less.

Facebook shares had closed today at $150.42 but shot up over 11 percent following the record revenue and profit announcements to hover around $167. A big 30 percent year-over-year boost in average revenue per user in North America fueled those gains. Yet that’s still down from $186 where it was a year ago and a peak of $217 in July.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg went beyond his usual intro to the earnings report where he assures investors things are going well and highlights new opportunities. This quarter he noted “We’ve fundamentally changed how we run our company to focus on the biggest social issues, and we’re investing more to build new and inspiring ways for people to connect.”

Squeezing Money From The Olds

Facebook managed to grow its DAU in both the critical US & Canada and Europe markets where it earns the most money after stagnation or shrinkage in previous quarters. The fact that Facebook is no longer dwindling it its most lucrative markets is surely contributing to its share price climb. Facebook’s monthly active user plateaued in North America but roared up in Europe. That was shored up by a reversal of last quarter’s decline in Rest Of World average revenue per user, which fell 4.7% in Q3 but bounced back with 16.5 percent growth in Q4.

 

Facebook raked in $6.8 billion in profit this quarter as it slowed down hiring and only grew headcount 5 percent from 33,606 to 35,587. It seems Facebook has gotten to a comfortable place with its security staff-up in the wake of election interference, fake news, and content moderation troubles. Its revenue is up 30 percent year-over-year while profits grew 61 percent, which is pretty remarkable for a 15-year old technology company.

Earnings Call

Facebook’s plan to concentrate on product innovation in 2019 after focusing on security in 2018 was the core of today’s earnings call. Zuckerberg laid out a product roadmap for more ephemerality and encryption, how unifying the infrastructure of Facebook’s messaging apps will better connect Marketplace to WhatsApp, Groups will become an organizing function for more of the Facebook experience, and shopping features will crop up across the family of apps. You can read Zuckerberg’s full opening statement here.

New stats included 500 million daily Instagram Stories users and 2 million advertisers on Stories. Zuckerberg said he was pleasantly surprised by Facebook Portal sales but didn’t give specifics. He revealed 2.7 billion people now use Facebook’s family of apps each month. However, CFO David Wehner warned the company would eventually stop sharing Facebook-only stats, presumably to mask the shift of younger users to its other apps. He also cautioned that due to the shift of users from feeds to Stories that Facebook has less experience monetizing, and targeting headwinds due to increased privacy scrutiny, Facebook predicts mid-single digit revenue growth rate reductions each quarter this year.

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We just released our community update and quarterly results.We’ve fundamentally changed how we run our company to…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, January 30, 2019

While the quarter went well, morale isn’t quite as rosy. It’s been a brutal quarter for Facebook At least its swifter user growth rates show Facebook survived its biggest ever data breach without scaring off too many people. Meanwhile it’s continuously struggled with scandals like hiring opposition research firm Definers, and it saw its new teen app Lasso largely flop. Facebook will have to convince investors it knows how to win back the next generation, or at least keep squeezing a lot more money out of the last one like it did in Q4.

Senator Warner calls on Zuckerberg to support market research consent rules

In response to TechCrunch’s investigation of Facebook paying teens and adults to install a VPN that lets it analyze all their phone’s traffic, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) has sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg. It admonishes Facebook for not spelling out exactly which data the Facebook Research app was collecting or giving users adequate information necessary to determine if they should accept payment in exchange for selling their privacy. Following our report, Apple banned Facebook’s Research app from iOS and shut down its internal employee-only workplace apps too as punishment, causing mayhem in Facebook’s office.

Warner wrote to Zuckerberg, “In both the case of Onavo and the Facebook Research project, I have concerns that users were not appropriately informed about the extent of Facebook’s data-gathering and the commercial purposes of this data collection. Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me.”

Warner is working on writing new laws to govern data collection initiatives like Facebook Research. He asks Zuckerberg, “Will you commit to supporting legislation requiring individualized, informed consent in all instances of behavioral and market research conducted by large platforms on users?”

Senator Blumenthal’s fierce statement

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) provided TechCrunch with a fiery statement regarding our investigation. He calls Facebook anti-competitive, which could fuel calls to regulate or break up Facebook, says the FTC must address the issue and that he’s planning to work with congress to safeguard teens’ privacy:

“Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible. This is yet another astonishing example of Facebook’s complete disregard for data privacy and eagerness to engage in anti-competitive behavior. Instead of learning its lesson when it was caught spying on consumers using the supposedly ‘private’ Onavo VPN app, Facebook rebranded the intrusive app and circumvented Apple’s attempts to protect iPhone users. Facebook continues to demonstrate its eagerness to look over everyone’s shoulder and watch everything they do in order to make money. 

Mark Zuckerberg’s empty promises are not enough. The FTC needs to step up to the plate, and the Onavo app should be part of its investigation. I will also be writing to Apple and Google on Facebook’s egregious behavior, and working in Congress to make sure that teens are protected from Big Tech’s privacy intrusions.”

Senator Markey says stop surveiling teens

And finally, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA) requests that Facebook stop recruiting teens for its Research program, and notes he’ll push his “Do Not Track Kids” act in Congress:

“It is inherently manipulative to offer teens money in exchange for their personal information when younger users don’t have a clear understanding how much data they’re handing over and how sensitive it is. I strongly urge Facebook to immediately cease its recruitment of teens for its Research Program and explicitly prohibit minors from participating. Congress also needs to pass legislation that updates children’s online privacy rules for the 21st century. I will be reintroducing my ‘Do Not Track Kids Act’ to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by instituting key privacy safeguards for teens. 

But my concerns also extend to adult users. I am alarmed by reports that Facebook is not providing participants with complete information about the extent of the information that the company can access through this program. Consumers deserve simple and clear explanations of what data is being collected and how it being used.”

The senators’ statements do go a bit overboard. Though Facebook Research was aggressively competitive and potentially misleading, Blumenthal calling it “anti-competitive” is a stretch. And Warner’s questioning on whether “any user reasonably understood that they were giving Facebook root device access through the enterprise certificate” or that it uses the data to track competitors oversteps the bounds. Surely some savvy technologists did, but the question is whether all the teens and everyone else understood.

Facebook isn’t the only one paying users to analyze all their phone data. TechCrunch found that Google had a similar program called Screenwise Meter. Though it was more upfront about it, Google also appears to have violated Apple’s employee-only Enterprise Certificate rules. We may be seeing the start to an industry-wide crack down on market research surveillance apps that dangle gift cards in front of users to get them to give up a massive amount of privacy.

Warner’s full letter to Zuckerberg can be found below:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg: 

I write to express concerns about allegations of Facebook’s latest efforts to monitor user activity. On January 29th, TechCrunch revealed that under the auspices of partnerships with beta testing firms, Facebook had begun paying users aged 13 to 35 to install an enterprise certificate, allowing Facebook to intercept all internet traffic to and from user devices. According to subsequent reporting by TechCrunch, Facebook relied on intermediaries that often “did not disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process.” Moreover, the advertisements used to recruit participants and the “Project Disclosure” make no mention of Facebook or the commercial purposes to which this data was allegedly put.

This arrangement comes in the wake of revelations that Facebook had previously engaged in similar efforts through a virtual private network (VPN) app, Onavo, that it owned and operated. According to a series of articles by the Wall Street Journal, Facebook used Onavo to scout emerging competitors by monitoring user activity – acquiring competitors in order to neutralize them as competitive threats, and in cases when that did not work, monitor usage patterns to inform Facebook’s own efforts to copy the features and innovations driving adoption of competitors’ apps. In 2017, my staff contacted Facebook with questions about how Facebook was promoting Onavo through its Facebook app – in particular, framing the app as a VPN that would “protect” users while omitting any reference to the main purpose of the app: allowing Facebook to gather market data on competitors.

Revelations in 2017 and 2018 prompted Apple to remove Onavo from its App Store in 2018 after concluding that the app violated its terms of service prohibitions on monitoring activity of other apps on a user’s device, as well as a requirement to make clear what user data will be collected and how it will be used. In both the case of Onavo and the Facebook Research project, I have concerns that users were not appropriately informed about the extent of Facebook’s data-gathering and the commercial purposes of this data collection.

Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me. As you recall, I wrote the Federal Trade Commission in 2014 in the wake of revelations that Facebook had undertaken a behavioral experiment on hundreds of thousands of users, without obtaining their informed consent. In submitted questions to your Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, I once again raised these concerns, asking if Facebook provided for “individualized, informed consent” in all research projects with human subjects – and whether users had the ability to opt out of such research. In response, we learned that Facebook does not rely on individualized, informed consent (noting that users consent under the terms of the general Data Policy) and that users have no opportunity to opt out of being enrolled in research studies of their activity. In large part for this reason, I am working on legislation to require individualized, informed consent in all instances of behavioral and market research conducted by large platforms on users. 

Fair, robust competition serves as an impetus for innovation, product differentiation, and wider consumer choice. For these reasons, I request that you respond to the following questions: 

1. Do you think any user reasonably understood that they were giving Facebook root device access through the enterprise certificate? What specific steps did you take to ensure that users were properly informed of this access? 

2. Do you think any user reasonably understood that Facebook was using this data for commercial purposes, including to track competitors?

3. Will you release all participants from the confidentiality agreements Facebook made them sign?

4. As you know, I have begun working on legislation that would require large platforms such as Facebook to provide users, on a continual basis, with an estimate of the overall value of their data to the service provider. In this instance, Facebook seems to have developed valuations for at least some uses of the data that was collected (such as market research). This further emphasizes the need for users to understand fully what data is collected by Facebook, the full range of ways in which it is used, and how much it is worth to the company. Will you commit to supporting this legislation and exploring methods for valuing user data holistically?

5. Will you commit to supporting legislation requiring individualized, informed consent in all instances of behavioral and market research conducted by large platforms on users?

I look forward to receiving your responses within the next two weeks. If you should have any questions or concerns, please contact my office at 202-224-2023.

Apple bans Facebook’s Research app that paid users for data

In the wake of TechCrunch’s investigation yesterday, Apple blocked Facebook’s Research VPN app before the social network could voluntarily shut it down. The Research app asked users for root network access to all data passing through their phone in exchange for $20 per month. Apple tells TechCrunch that yesterday evening it revoked the Enterprise Certificate that allows Facebook to distribute the Research app without going through the App Store. This not only breaks the Research app, but all of Facebook’s internal-use employee apps for collaboration and logistics too, from workplace chat to the lunch menu.

TechCrunch had reported that Facebook was breaking Apple’s policy that the Enterprise system is only for distributing internal corporate apps to employees, not paid external testers. That was actually before Facebook released a statement last night saying that it had shut down the iOS version of the Research program without mentioning that it was forced by Apple to do so.

TechCrunch’s investigation discovered that Facebook has been quietly operated the Research program on iOS and Android since 2016, recently under the name Project Atlas. It recruited 13 to 35 year olds, 5 percent of which were teenagers, with ads on Instagram and Snapchat and paid them a monthly fee plus referral bonuses to install Facebook’s Research app, the included VPN app that routes traffic to Facebook, and to ‘Trust’ the company with root network access to their phone. That lets Facebook pull in a user’s web browsing activity, what apps are on their phone and how they use them, and even decrypt their encrypted traffic. Facebook went so far as to ask users to screenshot and submit their Amazon order history. Facebook uses all this data to track competitors, assess trends, and plan its product roadmap.

Facebook was forced to remove its similar Onavo Protect app in August last year after Apple changed its policies to prohibit the VPN app’s data collection practices. But Facebook never shut down the Research app with the same functionality it was running in parallel. In fact, TechCrunch commissioned security expert Will Strafach to dig into the Facebook Research app, and we found that it featured tons of similar code and references to Onavo Protect. That means Facebook was purposefully disobeying the spirit of Apple’s 2018 privacy policy change while also abusing the Enterprise Certificate program.

Sources tell us that Apple revoking Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate has broken all of the company’s legitimate employee-only apps. Those include pre-launch internal-testing versions of Facebook and Instagram, as well as the employee apps for coordinating office collaboration, commutes, seeing the day’s lunch schedule, and more. That’s causing mayhem at Facebook, disrupting their daily work flow and ability to do product development. We predicted yesterday that Apple could take this drastic step to punish Facebook much harder than just removing its Research app. The disruption will translate into a huge loss of productivity for Facebook’s 33,000 employees.

[Update: Facebook later confirmed to TechCrunch that its internal apps were broken by Apple’s punishment Wednesday morning and that it’s in talks with Apple to try to resolve the issue and get their employee tools running again. Around 3pm pacific on Thursday, Apple restored Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate, thereby reactivating its internal employee apps. The nearly two work day-long disrupt to its workflow might make Facebook think twice about messing with Apple again.]

For reference, Facebook’s main iOS app still functions normally. Also, you can’t get paid for installing Onavo Protect on Android, only for the Facebook Research app. And Facebook isn’t the only one violating Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy, as TechCrunch discovered Google’s Screenwise Meter surveillance app breaks the rules too.

This morning, Apple informed us it had banned Facebook’s Research app yesterday before the social network seemingly pulled it voluntarily. Apple provided us with this strongly worded statement condemning the social network’s behavior:

“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

That comes in direct contradiction to Facebook’s initial response to our investigation. Facebook claimed it was in alignment with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy and that the program was no different than a focus group.

Seven hours later, a Facebook spokesperson said it was pulling its Research program from iOS without mentioning that Apple forced it to do so, and issued this statement disputing the characterization of our story:

“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

We refute those accusations by Facebook. As we wrote yesterday night, Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.

Senator Mark Warner has since called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to support legislation requiring individual informed consent for market research initiatives like Facebook Research. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal issued a fierce statement that “Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.”

The situation will surely worsen the relationship between Facebook and Apple after years of mounting animosity between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices, and Zuckerberg has countered that it offers products for free for everyone rather than making products few can afford like Apple. Flared tensions could see Facebook receive less promotion in the App Store, fewer integrations into iOS, and more jabs from Cook. Meanwhile, the world sees Facebook as having been caught red-handed threatening user privacy and breaking Apple policy.