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Archivo del Autor: Belen De Leon

Has the fight over privacy changed at all in 2019?

Few issues divide the tech community quite like privacy. Much of Silicon Valley’s wealth has been built on data-driven advertising platforms, and yet, there remain constant concerns about the invasiveness of those platforms.

Such concerns have intensified in just the last few weeks as France’s privacy regulator placed a record fine on Google under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules which the company now plans to appeal. Yet with global platform usage and service sales continuing to tick up, we asked a panel of eight privacy experts: “Has anything fundamentally changed around privacy in tech in 2019? What is the state of privacy and has the outlook changed?” 

This week’s participants include:

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. Consider this a recurring venue for debate, where leading experts – with a diverse range of vantage points and opinions – provide us with thoughts on some of the biggest issues currently in tech, startups and venture. If you have any feedback, please reach out: Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.


Thoughts & Responses:


Albert Gidari

Albert Gidari is the Consulting Director of Privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. He was a partner for over 20 years at Perkins Coie LLP, achieving a top-ranking in privacy law by Chambers, before retiring to consult with CIS on its privacy program. He negotiated the first-ever “privacy by design” consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission. A recognized expert on electronic surveillance law, he brought the first public lawsuit before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, seeking the right of providers to disclose the volume of national security demands received and the number of affected user accounts, ultimately resulting in greater public disclosure of such requests.

There is no doubt that the privacy environment changed in 2018 with the passage of California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and new privacy laws enacted around the globe.

“While privacy regulation seeks to make tech companies betters stewards of the data they collect and their practices more transparent, in the end, it is a deception to think that users will have more “privacy.””

For one thing, large tech companies have grown huge privacy compliance organizations to meet their new regulatory obligations. For another, the major platforms now are lobbying for passage of a federal privacy law in the U.S. This is not surprising after a year of privacy miscues, breaches and negative privacy news. But does all of this mean a fundamental change is in store for privacy? I think not.

The fundamental model sustaining the Internet is based upon the exchange of user data for free service. As long as advertising dollars drive the growth of the Internet, regulation simply will tinker around the edges, setting sideboards to dictate the terms of the exchange. The tech companies may be more accountable for how they handle data and to whom they disclose it, but the fact is that data will continue to be collected from all manner of people, places and things.

Indeed, if the past year has shown anything it is that two rules are fundamental: (1) everything that can be connected to the Internet will be connected; and (2) everything that can be collected, will be collected, analyzed, used and monetized. It is inexorable.

While privacy regulation seeks to make tech companies betters stewards of the data they collect and their practices more transparent, in the end, it is a deception to think that users will have more “privacy.” No one even knows what “more privacy” means. If it means that users will have more control over the data they share, that is laudable but not achievable in a world where people have no idea how many times or with whom they have shared their information already. Can you name all the places over your lifetime where you provided your SSN and other identifying information? And given that the largest data collector (and likely least secure) is government, what does control really mean?

All this is not to say that privacy regulation is futile. But it is to recognize that nothing proposed today will result in a fundamental shift in privacy policy or provide a panacea of consumer protection. Better privacy hygiene and more accountability on the part of tech companies is a good thing, but it doesn’t solve the privacy paradox that those same users who want more privacy broadly share their information with others who are less trustworthy on social media (ask Jeff Bezos), or that the government hoovers up data at rate that makes tech companies look like pikers (visit a smart city near you).

Many years ago, I used to practice environmental law. I watched companies strive to comply with new laws intended to control pollution by creating compliance infrastructures and teams aimed at preventing, detecting and deterring violations. Today, I see the same thing at the large tech companies – hundreds of employees have been hired to do “privacy” compliance. The language is the same too: cradle to grave privacy documentation of data flows for a product or service; audits and assessments of privacy practices; data mapping; sustainable privacy practices. In short, privacy has become corporatized and industrialized.

True, we have cleaner air and cleaner water as a result of environmental law, but we also have made it lawful and built businesses around acceptable levels of pollution. Companies still lawfully dump arsenic in the water and belch volatile organic compounds in the air. And we still get environmental catastrophes. So don’t expect today’s “Clean Privacy Law” to eliminate data breaches or profiling or abuses.

The privacy world is complicated and few people truly understand the number and variety of companies involved in data collection and processing, and none of them are in Congress. The power to fundamentally change the privacy equation is in the hands of the people who use the technology (or choose not to) and in the hands of those who design it, and maybe that’s where it should be.


Gabriel Weinberg

Gabriel Weinberg is the Founder and CEO of privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo.

Coming into 2019, interest in privacy solutions is truly mainstream. There are signs of this everywhere (media, politics, books, etc.) and also in DuckDuckGo’s growth, which has never been faster. With solid majorities now seeking out private alternatives and other ways to be tracked less online, we expect governments to continue to step up their regulatory scrutiny and for privacy companies like DuckDuckGo to continue to help more people take back their privacy.

“Consumers don’t necessarily feel they have anything to hide – but they just don’t want corporations to profit off their personal information, or be manipulated, or unfairly treated through misuse of that information.”

We’re also seeing companies take action beyond mere regulatory compliance, reflecting this new majority will of the people and its tangible effect on the market. Just this month we’ve seen Apple’s Tim Cook call for stronger privacy regulation and the New York Times report strong ad revenue in Europe after stopping the use of ad exchanges and behavioral targeting.

At its core, this groundswell is driven by the negative effects that stem from the surveillance business model. The percentage of people who have noticed ads following them around the Internet, or who have had their data exposed in a breach, or who have had a family member or friend experience some kind of credit card fraud or identity theft issue, reached a boiling point in 2018. On top of that, people learned of the extent to which the big platforms like Google and Facebook that collect the most data are used to propagate misinformation, discrimination, and polarization. Consumers don’t necessarily feel they have anything to hide – but they just don’t want corporations to profit off their personal information, or be manipulated, or unfairly treated through misuse of that information. Fortunately, there are alternatives to the surveillance business model and more companies are setting a new standard of trust online by showcasing alternative models.


Melika Carroll

Melika Carroll is Senior Vice President, Global Government Affairs at Internet Association, which represents over 45 of the world’s leading internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Airbnb and others.

We support a modern, national privacy law that provides people meaningful control over the data they provide to companies so they can make the most informed choices about how that data is used, seen, and shared.

“Any national privacy framework should provide the same protections for people’s data across industries, regardless of whether it is gathered offline or online.”

Internet companies believe all Americans should have the ability to access, correct, delete, and download the data they provide to companies.

Americans will benefit most from a federal approach to privacy – as opposed to a patchwork of state laws – that protects their privacy regardless of where they live. If someone in New York is video chatting with their grandmother in Florida, they should both benefit from the same privacy protections.

It’s also important to consider that all companies – both online and offline – use and collect data. Any national privacy framework should provide the same protections for people’s data across industries, regardless of whether it is gathered offline or online.

Two other important pieces of any federal privacy law include user expectations and the context in which data is shared with third parties. Expectations may vary based on a person’s relationship with a company, the service they expect to receive, and the sensitivity of the data they’re sharing. For example, you expect a car rental company to be able to track the location of the rented vehicle that doesn’t get returned. You don’t expect the car rental company to track your real-time location and sell that data to the highest bidder. Additionally, the same piece of data can have different sensitivities depending on the context in which it’s used or shared. For example, your name on a business card may not be as sensitive as your name on the sign in sheet at an addiction support group meeting.

This is a unique time in Washington as there is bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress as well as in the administration for a federal privacy law. Our industry is committed to working with policymakers and other stakeholders to find an American approach to privacy that protects individuals’ privacy and allows companies to innovate and develop products people love.


Johnny Ryan

Dr. Johnny Ryan FRHistS is Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave. His previous roles include Head of Ecosystem at PageFair, and Chief Innovation Officer of The Irish Times. He has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Tech companies will probably have to adapt to two privacy trends.

“As lawmakers and regulators in Europe and in the United States start to think of “purpose specification” as a tool for anti-trust enforcement, tech giants should beware.”

First, the GDPR is emerging as a de facto international standard.

In the coming years, the application of GDPR-like laws for commercial use of consumers’ personal data in the EU, Britain (post-EU), Japan, India, Brazil, South Korea, Malaysia, Argentina, and China will bring more than half of global GDP under a similar standard.

Whether this emerging standard helps or harms United States firms will be determined by whether the United States enacts and actively enforces robust federal privacy laws. Unless there is a federal GDPR-like law in the United States, there may be a degree of friction and the potential of isolation for United States companies.

However, there is an opportunity in this trend. The United States can assume the global lead by doing two things. First, enact a federal law that borrows from the GDPR, including a comprehensive definition of “personal data”, and robust “purpose specification”. Second, invest in world-leading regulation that pursues test cases, and defines practical standards. Cutting edge enforcement of common principles-based standards is de facto leadership.

Second, privacy and antitrust law are moving closer to each other, and might squeeze big tech companies very tightly indeed.

Big tech companies “cross-use” user data from one part of their business to prop up others. The result is that a company can leverage all the personal information accumulated from its users in one line of business, and for one purpose, to dominate other lines of business too.

This is likely to have anti-competitive effects. Rather than competing on the merits, the company can enjoy the unfair advantage of massive network effects even though it may be starting from scratch in a new line of business. This stifles competition and hurts innovation and consumer choice.

Antitrust authorities in other jurisdictions have addressed this. In 2015, the Belgian National Lottery was fined for re-using personal information acquired through its monopoly for a different, and incompatible, line of business.

As lawmakers and regulators in Europe and in the United States start to think of “purpose specification” as a tool for anti-trust enforcement, tech giants should beware.


John Miller

John Miller is the VP for Global Policy and Law at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a D.C. based advocate group for the high tech sector.  Miller leads ITI’s work on cybersecurity, privacy, surveillance, and other technology and digital policy issues.

Data has long been the lifeblood of innovation. And protecting that data remains a priority for individuals, companies and governments alike. However, as times change and innovation progresses at a rapid rate, it’s clear the laws protecting consumers’ data and privacy must evolve as well.

“Data has long been the lifeblood of innovation. And protecting that data remains a priority for individuals, companies and governments alike.”

As the global regulatory landscape shifts, there is now widespread agreement among business, government, and consumers that we must modernize our privacy laws, and create an approach to protecting consumer privacy that works in today’s data-driven reality, while still delivering the innovations consumers and businesses demand.

More and more, lawmakers and stakeholders acknowledge that an effective privacy regime provides meaningful privacy protections for consumers regardless of where they live. Approaches, like the framework ITI released last fall, must offer an interoperable solution that can serve as a model for governments worldwide, providing an alternative to a patchwork of laws that could create confusion and uncertainty over what protections individuals have.

Companies are also increasingly aware of the critical role they play in protecting privacy. Looking ahead, the tech industry will continue to develop mechanisms to hold us accountable, including recommendations that any privacy law mandate companies identify, monitor, and document uses of known personal data, while ensuring the existence of meaningful enforcement mechanisms.


Nuala O’Connor

Nuala O’Connor is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a global nonprofit committed to the advancement of digital human rights and civil liberties, including privacy, freedom of expression, and human agency. O’Connor has served in a number of presidentially appointed positions, including as the first statutorily mandated chief privacy officer in U.S. federal government when she served at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. O’Connor has held senior corporate leadership positions on privacy, data, and customer trust at Amazon, General Electric, and DoubleClick. She has practiced at several global law firms including Sidley Austin and Venable. She is an advocate for the use of data and internet-enabled technologies to improve equity and amplify marginalized voices.

For too long, Americans’ digital privacy has varied widely, depending on the technologies and services we use, the companies that provide those services, and our capacity to navigate confusing notices and settings.

“Americans deserve comprehensive protections for personal information – protections that can’t be signed, or check-boxed, away.”

We are burdened with trying to make informed choices that align with our personal privacy preferences on hundreds of devices and thousands of apps, and reading and parsing as many different policies and settings. No individual has the time nor capacity to manage their privacy in this way, nor is it a good use of time in our increasingly busy lives. These notices and choices and checkboxes have become privacy theater, but not privacy reality.

In 2019, the legal landscape for data privacy is changing, and so is the public perception of how companies handle data. As more information comes to light about the effects of companies’ data practices and myriad stewardship missteps, Americans are surprised and shocked about what they’re learning. They’re increasingly paying attention, and questioning why they are still overburdened and unprotected. And with intensifying scrutiny by the media, as well as state and local lawmakers, companies are recognizing the need for a clear and nationally consistent set of rules.

Personal privacy is the cornerstone of the digital future people want. Americans deserve comprehensive protections for personal information – protections that can’t be signed, or check-boxed, away. The Center for Democracy & Technology wants to help craft those legal principles to solidify Americans’ digital privacy rights for the first time.


Chris Baker

Chris Baker is Senior Vice President and General Manager of EMEA at Box.

Last year saw data privacy hit the headlines as businesses and consumers alike were forced to navigate the implementation of GDPR. But it’s far from over.

“…customers will have trust in a business when they are given more control over how their data is used and processed”

2019 will be the year that the rest of the world catches up to the legislative example set by Europe, as similar data regulations come to the forefront. Organizations must ensure they are compliant with regional data privacy regulations, and more GDPR-like policies will start to have an impact. This can present a headache when it comes to data management, especially if you’re operating internationally. However, customers will have trust in a business when they are given more control over how their data is used and processed, and customers can rest assured knowing that no matter where they are in the world, businesses must meet the highest bar possible when it comes to data security.

Starting with the U.S., 2019 will see larger corporations opt-in to GDPR to support global business practices. At the same time, local data regulators will lift large sections of the EU legislative framework and implement these rules in their own countries. 2018 was the year of GDPR in Europe, and 2019 be the year of GDPR globally.


Christopher Wolf

Christopher Wolf is the Founder and Chair of the Future of Privacy Forum think tank, and is senior counsel at Hogan Lovells focusing on internet law, privacy and data protection policy.

With the EU GDPR in effect since last May (setting a standard other nations are emulating),

“Regardless of the outcome of the debate over a new federal privacy law, the issue of the privacy and protection of personal data is unlikely to recede.”

with the adoption of a highly-regulatory and broadly-applicable state privacy law in California last Summer (and similar laws adopted or proposed in other states), and with intense focus on the data collection and sharing practices of large tech companies, the time may have come where Congress will adopt a comprehensive federal privacy law. Complicating the adoption of a federal law will be the issue of preemption of state laws and what to do with the highly-developed sectoral laws like HIPPA and Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Also to be determined is the expansion of FTC regulatory powers. Regardless of the outcome of the debate over a new federal privacy law, the issue of the privacy and protection of personal data is unlikely to recede.


Source: TechCrunch

In film Share, a video tears teens apart. It's a timely #metoo parable – CNET

Review: Premiering at Sundance this week, Share is a raw and uncomfortable movie that tackles the modern era of sexual abuse revelations.
Source: CNET

Oculus's VR live-theater time-warping night-club game is unlike anything else I've tried before – CNET

The Under Presents is a new kind of VR experience that teleports you from your living room to a sprawling absurdist universe with live actors. Could it finally be VR’s killer app?
Source: CNET

Ted Bundy documentary on Netflix turned me into a terrified teen again – CNET

Commentary: Watching Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes brought me back to high school, when I thought Bundy would escape jail to kill me next.
Source: CNET

I Am Mother review: Taut sci-fi chiller with a robot that's one bad mom – CNET

Hillary Swank stars in this tense, strikingly shot film from Sundance 2019 that evokes Alien as daughter and mechanoid mama face off over the future of the human race.
Source: CNET

One-quarter of jobs are at ‘high-risk’ of being automated

No one will be entirely safe from automation in the future, but according to a new study out of the Brookings Institute, around 25 percent of U.S. jobs are at “high risk.” It’s a stark bit of foreshadowing in a job market that has yet to fully rebound.

Roles in transportation, food prep, production and office admin are among those at highest risk, with robotics and artificial intelligence threatening to automate in the neighborhood of 70 percent of tasks, according to the study. Activities involving processing, data collection and physical labor are, unsurprisingly, most at risk here.

Automation is expected to have an outsized impact in certain regions in the country, and among less well educated workers. Likewise, it’s expect to impact different segments of the population in different ways.

“Youth, and less educated workers, along with underrepresented groups all appear likely to face significantly more acute challenges from automation in the coming years,” according to the study. “Young workers and Hispanics will be especially exposed.”

There does seem to be a certain inevitability in all of this. And certainly we’ve seen versions of this scenario played out, decade after after. But local governments and industries can help brace for impact, by educating and developing skills among existing workers, says Brookings.


Source: TechCrunch

The facts about Facebook

This is a critical reading of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s article in the WSJ on Thursday, also entitled The Facts About Facebook

Yes Mark, you’re right; Facebook turns 15 next month. What a long time you’ve been in the social media business! We’re curious as to whether you’ve also been keeping count of how many times you’ve been forced to apologize for breaching people’s trust or, well, otherwise royally messing up over the years.

It’s also true you weren’t setting out to build “a global company”. The predecessor to Facebook was a ‘hot or not’ game called ‘FaceMash’ that you hacked together while drinking beer in your Harvard dormroom. Your late night brainwave was to get fellow students to rate each others’ attractiveness — and you weren’t at all put off by not being in possession of the necessary photo data to do this. You just took it; hacking into the college’s online facebooks and grabbing people’s selfies without permission.

Blogging about what you were doing as you did it, you wrote: “I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of some farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.” Just in case there was any doubt as to the ugly nature of your intention. 

The seeds of Facebook’s global business were thus sewn in a crude and consentless game of clickbait whose idea titillated you so much you thought nothing of breaching security, privacy, copyright and decency norms just to grab a few eyeballs.

So while you may not have instantly understood how potent this ‘outrageous and divisive’ eyeball-grabbing content tactic would turn out to be — oh hai future global scale! — the core DNA of Facebook’s business sits in that frat boy discovery where your eureka Internet moment was finding you could win the attention jackpot by pitting people against each other.

Pretty quickly you also realized you could exploit and commercialize human one-upmanship — gotta catch em all friend lists! popularity poke wars! — and stick a badge on the resulting activity, dubbing it ‘social’.

FaceMash was antisocial, though. And the unpleasant flipside that can clearly flow from ‘social’ platforms is something you continue not being nearly honest nor open enough about. Whether it’s political disinformation, hate speech or bullying, the individual and societal impacts of maliciously minded content shared and amplified using massively mainstream tools you control is now impossible to ignore.

Yet you prefer to play down these human impacts; as a “crazy idea”, or by implying that ‘a little’ amplified human nastiness is the necessary cost of being in the big multinational business of connecting everyone and ‘socializing’ everything.

But did you ask the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, a British schoolgirl who took her own life in 2017, whether he’s okay with your growth vs controls trade-off? “I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter,” said Russell in an interview with the BBC this week.

After her death, Molly’s parents found she had been following accounts on Instagram that were sharing graphic material related to self-harming and suicide, including some accounts that actively encourage people to cut themselves. “We didn’t know that anything like that could possibly exist on a platform like Instagram,” said Russell.

Without a human editor in the mix, your algorithmic recommendations are blind to risk and suffering. Built for global scale, they get on with the expansionist goal of maximizing clicks and views by serving more of the same sticky stuff. And more extreme versions of things users show an interest in to keep the eyeballs engaged.

So when you write about making services that “billions” of “people around the world love and use” forgive us for thinking that sounds horribly glib. The scales of suffering don’t sum like that. If your entertainment product has whipped up genocide anywhere in the world — as the UN said Facebook did in Myanmar — it’s failing regardless of the proportion of users who are having their time pleasantly wasted on and by Facebook.

And if your algorithms can’t incorporate basic checks and safeguards so they don’t accidentally encourage vulnerable teens to commit suicide you really don’t deserve to be in any consumer-facing business at all.

Yet your article shows no sign you’ve been reflecting on the kinds of human tragedies that don’t just play out on your platform but can be an emergent property of your targeting algorithms.

You focus instead on what you call “clear benefits to this business model”.

The benefits to Facebook’s business are certainly clear. You have the billions in quarterly revenue to stand that up. But what about the costs to the rest of us? Human costs are harder to quantify but you don’t even sound like you’re trying.

You do write that you’ve heard “many questions” about Facebook’s business model. Which is most certainly true but once again you’re playing down the level of political and societal concern about how your platform operates (and how you operate your platform) — deflecting and reframing what Facebook is to cast your ad business a form of quasi philanthropy; a comfortable discussion topic and self-serving idea you’d much prefer we were all sold on.

It’s also hard to shake the feeling that your phrasing at this point is intended as a bit of an in-joke for Facebook staffers — to smirk at the ‘dumb politicians’ who don’t even know how Facebook makes money.

Y’know, like you smirked…

Then you write that you want to explain how Facebook operates. But, thing is, you don’t explain — you distract, deflect, equivocate and mislead, which has been your business’ strategy through many months of scandal (that and worst tactics — such as paying a PR firm that used oppo research tactics to discredit Facebook critics with smears).

Dodging is another special power; such as how you dodged repeat requests from international parliamentarians to be held accountable for major data misuse and security breaches.

The Zuckerberg ‘open letter’ mansplain, which typically runs to thousands of blame-shifting words, is another standard issue production from the Facebook reputation crisis management toolbox.

And here you are again, ironically enough, mansplaining in a newspaper; an industry that your platform has worked keenly to gut and usurp, hungry to supplant editorially guided journalism with the moral vacuum of algorithmically geared space-filler which, left unchecked, has been shown, time and again, lifting divisive and damaging content into public view.

The latest Zuckerberg screed has nothing new to say. It’s pure spin. We’ve read scores of self-serving Facebook apologias over the years and can confirm Facebook’s founder has made a very tedious art of selling abject failure as some kind of heroic lack of perfection.

But the spin has been going on for far, far too long. Fifteen years, as you remind us. Yet given that hefty record it’s little wonder you’re moved to pen again — imagining that another word blast is all it’ll take for the silly politicians to fall in line.

Thing is, no one is asking Facebook for perfection, Mark. We’re looking for signs that you and your company have a moral compass. Because the opposite appears to be true. (Or as one UK parliamentarian put it to your CTO last year: “I remain to be convinced that your company has integrity”.)

Facebook has scaled to such an unprecedented, global size exactly because it has no editorial values. And you say again now you want to be all things to all men. Put another way that means there’s a moral vacuum sucking away at your platform’s core; a supermassive ethical blackhole that scales ad dollars by the billions because you won’t tie the kind of process knots necessary to treat humans like people, not pairs of eyeballs.

You don’t design against negative consequences or to pro-actively avoid terrible impacts — you let stuff happen and then send in the ‘trust & safety’ team once the damage has been done.

You might call designing against negative consequences a ‘growth bottleneck’; others would say it’s having a conscience.

Everything standing in the way of scaling Facebook’s usage is, under the Zuckerberg regime, collateral damage — hence the old mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ — whether it’s social cohesion, civic values or vulnerable individuals.

This is why it takes a celebrity defamation lawsuit to force your company to dribble a little more resource into doing something about scores of professional scammers paying you to pop their fraudulent schemes in a Facebook “ads” wrapper. (Albeit, you’re only taking some action in the UK in this particular case.)

Funnily enough — though it’s not at all funny and it doesn’t surprise us — Facebook is far slower and patchier when it comes to fixing things it broke.

Of course there will always be people who thrive with a digital megaphone like Facebook thrust in their hand. Scammers being a pertinent example. But the measure of a civilized society is how it protects those who can’t defend themselves from targeted attacks or scams because they lack the protective wrap of privilege. Which means people who aren’t famous. Not public figures like Martin Lewis, the consumer champion who has his own platform and enough financial resources to file a lawsuit to try to make Facebook do something about how its platform supercharges scammers.

Zuckerberg’s slippery call to ‘fight bad content with more content’ — or to fight Facebook-fuelled societal division by shifting even more of the apparatus of civic society onto Facebook — fails entirely to recognize this asymmetry.

And even in the Lewis case, Facebook remains a winner; Lewis dropped his suit and Facebook got to make a big show of signing over £500k worth of ad credit coupons to a consumer charity that will end up giving them right back to Facebook.

The company’s response to problems its platform creates is to look the other way until a trigger point of enough bad publicity gets reached. At which critical point it flips the usual crisis PR switch and sends in a few token clean up teams — who scrub a tiny proportion of terrible content; or take down a tiny number of fake accounts; or indeed make a few token and heavily publicized gestures — before leaning heavily on civil society (and on users) to take the real strain.

You might think Facebook reaching out to respected external institutions is a positive step. A sign of a maturing mindset and a shift towards taking greater responsibility for platform impacts. (And in the case of scam ads in the UK it’s donating £3M in cash and ad credits to a bona fide consumer advice charity.)

But this is still Facebook dumping problems of its making on an already under-resourced and over-worked civic sector at the same time as its platform supersizes their workload.

In recent years the company has also made a big show of getting involved with third party fact checking organizations across various markets — using these independents to stencil in a PR strategy for ‘fighting fake news’ that also entails Facebook offloading the lion’s share of the work. (It’s not paying fact checkers anything, given the clear conflict that would represent it obviously can’t).

So again external organizations are being looped into Facebook’s mess — in this case to try to drain the swamp of fakes being fenced and amplified on its platform — even as the scale of the task remains hopeless, and all sorts of junk continues to flood into and pollute the public sphere.

What’s clear is that none of these organizations has the scale or the resources to fix problems Facebook’s platform creates. Yet it serves Facebook’s purposes to be able to point to them trying.

And all the while Zuckerberg is hard at work fighting to fend off regulation that could force his company to take far more care and spend far more of its own resources (and profits) monitoring the content it monetizes by putting it in front of eyeballs.

The Facebook founder is fighting because he knows his platform is a targeted attack; On individual attention, via privacy-hostile behaviorally targeted ads (his euphemism for this is “relevant ads”); on social cohesion, via divisive algorithms that drive outrage in order to maximize platform engagement; and on democratic institutions and norms, by systematically eroding consensus and the potential for compromise between the different groups that every society is comprised of.

In his WSJ post Zuckerberg can only claim Facebook doesn’t “leave harmful or divisive content up”. He has no defence against Facebook having put it up and enabled it to spread in the first place.

Sociopaths relish having a soapbox so unsurprisingly these people find a wonderful home on Facebook. But where does empathy fit into the antisocial media equation?

As for Facebook being a ‘free’ service — a point Zuckerberg is most keen to impress in his WSJ post — it’s of course a cliché to point out that ‘if it’s free you’re the product’. (Or as the even older saying goes: ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’).

But for the avoidance of doubt, “free” access does not mean cost-free access. And in Facebook’s case the cost is both individual (to your attention and your privacy); and collective (to the public’s attention and to social cohesion).

The much bigger question is who actually benefits if “everyone” is on Facebook, as Zuckerberg would prefer. Facebook isn’t the Internet. Facebook doesn’t offer the sole means of communication, digital or otherwise. People can, and do, ‘connect’ (if you want to use such a transactional word for human relations) just fine without Facebook.

So beware the hard and self-serving sell in which Facebook’s 15-year founder seeks yet again to recast privacy as an unaffordable luxury.

Actually, Mark, it’s a fundamental human right.

The best argument Zuckerberg can muster for his goal of universal Facebook usage being good for anything other than his own business’ bottom line is to suggest small businesses could use that kind of absolute reach to drive extra growth of their own.

Though he only provides a few general data-points to support the claim; saying there are “more than 90M small businesses on Facebook” which “make up a large part of our business” (how large?) — and claiming “most” (51%?) couldn’t afford TV ads or billboards (might they be able to afford other online or newspaper ads though?); he also cites a “global survey” (how many businesses surveyed?), presumably run by Facebook itself, which he says found “half the businesses on Facebook say they’ve hired more people since they joined” (but how did you ask the question, Mark?; we’re concerned it might have been rather leading), and from there he leaps to the implied conclusion that “millions” of jobs have essentially been created by Facebook.

But did you control for common causes Mark? Or are you just trying to take credit for others’ hard work because, well, it’s politically advantageous for you to do so?

Whether Facebook’s claims about being great for small business stand up to scrutiny or not, if people’s fundamental rights are being wholesale flipped for SMEs to make a few extra bucks that’s an unacceptable trade off.

“Millions” of jobs suggestively linked to Facebook sure sounds great — but you can’t and shouldn’t overlook disproportionate individual and societal costs, as Zuckerberg is urging policymakers to here.

Let’s also not forget that some of the small business ‘jobs’ that Facebook’s platform can take definitive and major credit for creating include the Macedonia teens who became hyper-adept at seeding Facebook with fake U.S. political news, around the 2016 presidential election. But presumably those aren’t the kind of jobs Zuckerberg is advocating for.

He also repeats the spurious claim that Facebook gives users “complete control” over what it does with personal information collected for advertising.

We’ve heard this time and time again from Zuckerberg and yet it remains pure BS.

WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg concludes his testimony before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Yo Mark! First up we’re still waiting for your much trumpeted ‘Clear History’ tool. You know, the one you claimed you thought of under questioning in Congress last year (and later used to fend off follow up questions in the European Parliament).

Reportedly the tool is due this Spring. But even when it does finally drop it represents another classic piece of gaslighting by Facebook, given how it seeks to normalize (and so enable) the platform’s pervasive abuse of its users’ data.

Truth is, there is no master ‘off’ switch for Facebook’s ongoing surveillance. Such a switch — were it to exist — would represent a genuine control for users. But Zuckerberg isn’t offering it.

Instead his company continues to groom users into accepting being creeped on by offering pantomime settings that boil down to little more than privacy theatre — if they even realize they’re there.

‘Hit the button! Reset cookies! Delete browsing history! Keep playing Facebook!’

An interstitial reset is clearly also a dilute decoy. It’s not the same as being able to erase all extracted insights Facebook’s infrastructure continuously mines from users, using these derivatives to target people with behavioral ads; tracking and profiling on an ongoing basis by creeping on browsing activity (on and off Facebook), and also by buying third party data on its users from brokers.

Multiple signals and inferences are used to flesh out individual ad profiles on an ongoing basis, meaning the files are never static. And there’s simply no way to tell Facebook to burn your digital ad mannequin. Not even if you delete your Facebook account.

Nor, indeed, is there a way to get a complete read out from Facebook on all the data it’s attached to your identity. Even in Europe, where companies are subject to strict privacy laws that place a legal requirement on data controllers to disclose all personal data they hold on a person on request, as well as who they’re sharing it with, for what purposes, under what legal grounds.

Last year Paul-Olivier Dehaye, the founder of PersonalData.IO, a startup that aims to help people control how their personal data is accessed by companies, recounted in the UK parliament how he’d spent years trying to obtain all his personal information from Facebook — with the company resorting to legal arguments to block his subject access request.

Dehaye said he had succeeded in extracting a bit more of his data from Facebook than it initially handed over. But it was still just a “snapshot”, not an exhaustive list, of all the advertisers who Facebook had shared his data with. This glimpsed tip implies a staggeringly massive personal data iceberg lurking beneath the surface of each and every one of the 2.2BN+ Facebook users. (Though the figure is likely even more massive because it tracks non-users too.)

Zuckerberg’s “complete control” wording is therefore at best self-serving and at worst an outright lie. Facebook’s business has complete control of users by offering only a superficial layer of confusing and fiddly, ever-shifting controls that demand continued presence on the platform to use them, and ongoing effort to keep on top of settings changes (which are always, to a fault, privacy hostile), making managing your personal data a life-long chore.

Facebook’s power dynamic puts the onus squarely on the user to keep finding and hitting reset button.

But this too is a distraction. Resetting anything on its platform is largely futile, given Facebook retains whatever behavioral insights it already stripped off of your data (and fed to its profiling machinery). And its omnipresent background snooping carries on unchecked, amassing fresh insights you also can’t clear.

Nor does Clear History offer any control for the non-users Facebook tracks via the pixels and social plug-ins it’s larded around the mainstream web. Zuckerberg was asked about so-called shadow profiles in Congress last year — which led to this awkward exchange where he claimed not to know what the phrase refers to.

EU MEPs also seized on the issue, pushing him to respond. He did so by attempting to conflate surveillance and security — by claiming it’s necessary for Facebook to hold this data to keep “bad content out”. Which seems a bit of an ill-advised argument to make given how badly that mission is generally going for Facebook.

Still, Zuckerberg repeats the claim in the WSJ post, saying information collected for ads is “generally important for security and operating our services” — using this to address what he couches as “the important question of whether the advertising model encourages companies like ours to use and store more information than we otherwise would”.

So, essentially, Facebook’s founder is saying that the price for Facebook’s existence is pervasive surveillance of everyone, everywhere, with or without your permission.

Though he doesn’t express that ‘fact’ as a cost of his “free” platform. RIP privacy indeed.

Another pertinent example of Zuckerberg simply not telling the truth when he wrongly claims Facebook users can control their information vis-a-vis his ad business — an example which also happens to underline how pernicious his attempts to use “security” to justify eroding privacy really are — bubbled into view last fall, when Facebook finally confessed that mobile phone numbers users had provided for the specific purpose of enabling two-factor authentication (2FA) to increase the security of their accounts were also used by Facebook for ad targeting.

A company spokesperson told us that if a user wanted to opt out of the ad-based repurposing of their mobile phone data they could use non-phone number based 2FA — though Facebook only added the ability to use an app for 2FA in May last year.

What Facebook is doing on the security front is especially disingenuous BS in that it risks undermining security practice by bundling a respected tool (2FA) with ads that creep on people.

And there’s plenty more of this kind of disingenuous nonsense in Zuckerberg’s WSJ post — where he repeats a claim we first heard him utter last May, at a conference in Paris, when he suggested that following changes made to Facebook’s consent flow, ahead of updated privacy rules coming into force in Europe, the fact European users had (mostly) swallowed the new terms, rather than deleting their accounts en masse, was a sign people were majority approving of “more relevant” (i.e more creepy) Facebook ads.

Au contraire, it shows nothing of the sort. It simply underlines the fact Facebook still does not offer users a free and fair choice when it comes to consenting to their personal data being processed for behaviorally targeted ads — despite free choice being a requirement under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

If Facebook users are forced to ‘choose’ between being creeped on or deleting their account on the dominant social service where all their friends are it’s hardly a free choice. (And GDPR complaints have been filed over this exact issue of ‘forced consent‘.)

Add to that, as we said at the time, Facebook’s GDPR tweaks were lousy with manipulative, dark pattern design. So again the company is leaning on users to get the outcomes it wants.

It’s not a fair fight, any which way you look at it. But here we have Zuckerberg, the BS salesman, trying to claim his platform’s ongoing manipulation of people already enmeshed in the network is evidence for people wanting creepy ads.

darkened facebook logo

The truth is that most Facebook users remain unaware of how extensively the company creeps on them (per this recent Pew research). And fiddly controls are of course even harder to get a handle on if you’re sitting in the dark.

Zuckerberg appears to concede a little ground on the transparency and control point when he writes that: “Ultimately, I believe the most important principles around data are transparency, choice and control.” But all the privacy-hostile choices he’s made; and the faux controls he’s offered; and the data mountain he simply won’t ‘fess up to sitting on shows, beyond reasonable doubt, the company cannot and will not self-regulate.

If Facebook is allowed to continue setting its own parameters and choosing its own definitions (for “transparency, choice and control”) users won’t have even one of the three principles, let alone the full house, as well they should. Facebook will just keep moving the goalposts and marking its own homework.

You can see this in the way Zuckerberg fuzzes and elides what his company really does with people’s data; and how he muddies and muddles uses for the data — such as by saying he doesn’t know what shadow profiles are; or claiming users can download ‘all their data’; or that ad profiles are somehow essential for security; or by repurposing 2FA digits to personalize ads too.

How do you try to prevent the purpose limitation principle being applied to regulate your surveillance-reliant big data ad business? Why by mixing the data streams of course! And then trying to sew confusion among regulators and policymakers by forcing them to unpick your mess.

Much like Facebook is forcing civic society to clean up its messy antisocial impacts.

Europe’s GDPR is focusing the conversation, though, and targeted complaints filed under the bloc’s new privacy regime have shown they can have teeth and so bite back against rights incursions.

But before we put another self-serving Zuckerberg screed to rest, let’s take a final look at his description of how Facebook’s ad business works. Because this is also seriously misleading. And cuts to the very heart of the “transparency, choice and control” issue he’s quite right is central to the personal data debate. (He just wants to get to define what each of those words means.)

In the article, Zuckerberg claims “people consistently tell us that if they’re going to see ads, they want them to be relevant”. But who are these “people” of which he speaks? If he’s referring to the aforementioned European Facebook users, who accepted updated terms with the same horribly creepy ads because he didn’t offer them any alternative, we would suggest that’s not a very affirmative signal.

Now if it were true that a generic group of ‘Internet people’ were consistently saying anything about online ads the loudest message would most likely be that they don’t like them. Click through rates are fantastically small. And hence also lots of people using ad blocking tools. (Growth in usage of ad blockers has also occurred in parallel with the increasing incursions of the adtech industrial surveillance complex.)

So Zuckerberg’s logical leap to claim users of free services want to be shown only the most creepy ads is really a very odd one.

Let’s now turn to Zuckerberg’s use of the word “relevant”. As we noted above, this is a euphemism. It conflates many concepts but principally it’s used by Facebook as a cloak to shield and obscure the reality of what it’s actually doing (i.e. privacy-hostile people profiling to power intrusive, behaviourally microtargeted ads) in order to avoid scrutiny of exactly those creepy and intrusive Facebook practices.

Yet the real sleight of hand is how Zuckerberg glosses over the fact that ads can be relevant without being creepy. Because ads can be contextual. They don’t have to be behaviorally targeted.

Ads can be based on — for example — a real-time search/action plus a user’s general location. Without needing to operate a vast, all-pervasive privacy-busting tracking infrastructure to feed open-ended surveillance dossiers on what everyone does online, as Facebook chooses to.

And here Zuckerberg gets really disingenuous because he uses a benign-sounding example of a contextual ad (the example he chooses contains an interest and a general location) to gloss over a detail-light explanation of how Facebook’s people tracking and profiling apparatus works.

“Based on what pages people like, what they click on, and other signals, we create categories — for example, people who like pages about gardening and live in Spain — and then charge advertisers to show ads to that category,” he writes, with that slipped in reference to “other signals” doing some careful shielding work there.

Other categories that Facebook’s algorithms have been found ready and willing to accept payment to run ads against in recent years include “jew-hater”, “How to burn Jews” and “Hitler did nothing wrong”.

Funnily enough Zuckerberg doesn’t mention those actual Facebook microtargeting categories in his glossy explainer of how its “relevant” ads business works. But they offer a far truer glimpse of the kinds of labels Facebook’s business sticks on people.

As we wrote last week, the case against behavioral ads is stacking up. Zuckerberg’s attempt to spin the same self-serving lines should really fool no one at this point.

Nor should regulators be derailed by the lie that Facebook’s creepy business model is the only version of adtech possible. It’s not even the only version of profitable adtech currently available. (Contextual ads have made Google alternative search engine DuckDuckGo profitable since 2014, for example.)

Simply put, adtech doesn’t have to be creepy to work. And ads that don’t creep on people would give publishers greater ammunition to sell ad block using readers on whitelisting their websites. A new generation of people-sensitive startups are also busy working on new forms of ad targeting that bake in privacy by design.

And with legal and regulatory risk rising, intrusive and creepy adtech that demands the equivalent of ongoing strip searches of every Internet user on the planet really look to be on borrowed time.

Facebook’s problem is it scrambled for big data and, finding it easy to suck up tonnes of the personal stuff on the unregulated Internet, built an antisocial surveillance business that needs to capture both sides of its market — eyeballs and advertisers — and keep them buying to an exploitative and even abusive relationship for its business to keep minting money.

Pivoting that tanker would certainly be tough, and in any case who’d trust a Zuckerberg who suddenly proclaimed himself the privacy messiah?

But it sure is a long way from ‘move fast and break things’ to trying to claim there’s only one business model to rule them all.


Source: TechCrunch

Where seed and early-stage funding is growing, contracting or holding steady

In startup circles, it’s trendy to talk about how entrepreneurs are leaving high-tax, high cost-of-living metros for cheaper locales. While Silicon Valley remains ground central for hobnobbing with investors, the common wisdom goes, early-stage funding stretches much further elsewhere.

As memes go, it makes sense. But does the data bear this out? Is Texas turning into the new California? Is Salt Lake City edging out Seattle? Are the largest U.S. startup hubs losing their edge in luring promising early-stage startups?

In a somewhat eccentric data crunch, Crunchbase News set out to see the extent to which certain regions are gaining in early-stage and seed activity. We also attempted to see whether any of the big, established startup ecosystems are showing obvious signs of decline.

To lay out our case, we looked at four metrics. First, we measured total reported annual seed funding and round counts by state for the 18 largest venture capital ecosystems. Next, we looked at seed through early-stage investment and deal counts across three size ranges. They include moderately sized rounds of $1 million to $5 million, larger ones of more than $5 million and less than $50 million and really big early-stage investments of $50 million and up.

The idea with the size-range data sets was to see how tech hubs stack up in terms of launching well-funded startups. It’s one thing to have a lot of seed-funded startups. It’s quite another to see them go on to close follow-on rounds in the millions or tens of millions. We also wanted to see whether the top startup hubs are retaining their dominance in launching companies that go on to secure the biggest early-stage rounds.

(If the round sizes seem overly large for seed or early-stage investments, keep in mind that in 2018 and the current boom, traditional buckets for rounds have been breached; so what was once a Series D in terms of dollars, can now in fact be an early-stage round in some contexts.)

Here are some of the broad findings:

  • Top hubs hold pretty steady. The largest venture ecosystems aren’t showing signs of significant contraction this past year at seed and early-stage. Across the metrics we measured, the three largest (California, New York and Massachusetts) are hanging on to similar shares of funding as prior years.
  • Utah and Pennsylvania outperforms. Two states stood out in terms of posting gains across several seed and early-stage funding metrics: Pennsylvania and Utah. Pennsylvania benefited from heightened investment in biotech, transportation and robotics, areas in which it has large talent pools. Utah, meanwhile, prevailed in enterprise software.
  • Texas sees big gains in larger rounds. Texas didn’t see an annual rise in total reported seed funding, moderate-size deals or really big early rounds. However, the state was red-hot in producing startups that secured rounds of more than $5 million and less than $50 million.

Below, we’ll flesh out these findings, as well as take a look at the overall breakdown of seed and early-stage funding.

Here’s how the top states for venture funding stack up

To begin, let’s take a look at the breakdown for seed-stage funding and rounds among the 18 states that account for the overwhelming majority of investments:

As you can see, the top six states take in the lion’s share of seed funding, with California the leader of the pack by several multiples.

Moderately sized rounds by state

Next, let’s look at how the top states rank by another metric: Moderately sized seed and early-stage rounds of between $1 million and $5 million.

The reason we included this metric is because it includes very early-stage companies that have a lot of runway ahead, but have already attracted some serious investor interest. We also provided a year-over-year comparison, as it may be an early indicator of a state’s venture ecosystem gaining or losing traction.

Without further ado, here’s the chart:

As you can see above, the top five states for venture investment didn’t see big gains or losses in their share of investment at the $1 million to $5 million round size. Where we did see big increases was in two aforementioned states: Pennsylvania and Utah.

Early-stage rounds between $5M and $50M

Another metric to gauge a tech hub’s momentum is its ability to produce startups that raise pretty big seed and early-stage rounds.

With this in mind, we summed up deal counts and total investment by state for rounds of more than $5 million but less than $50 million for companies founded in the past four years. The results are charted below:

 

For mid-sized tech hubs, we see a good amount of year-over-year fluctuation in share of total investment for this category. A single big round or two can really move the needle, so it’s probably wise not to make to much of a single year’s fluctuation.

Texas, however, really is showing momentum: The Lone Star State is the largest tech ecosystem where we saw a really big year-over-year increase in rounds over $5 million and under $50 million. In 2018, Texas had 30 rounds in this category (see list), bringing in a total of $366 million. That’s up from just 13 funding rounds in the category bringing in $138 million in 2017. While we can’t point to clear-cut causes for the increase without deeper analysis, it’s apparent this is a bullish indicator for the Texan startup scene.

Early-stage rounds of $50M and up

Last, we looked at really big seed and early-stage rounds of $50 million and up for companies founded in the prior four years.

This is a funding category that barely existed several years ago. However, giant early-stage rounds have really mushroomed in recent quarters with the emergence of super-sized venture funds like the SoftBank Vision Fund and a greater willingness among investors to throw hundreds of millions at nascent sectors like scooter sharing.

The data indicates that really big early-stage rounds still primarily occur in the biggest startup hubs. The San Francisco Bay Area, New York and Boston were home to more than 85 percent of companies in the 2018 list for the category. No other state brought in more than one deal.

We have more details on how the numbers stack up in the chart below:

 

More power to Pennsylvania and Utah

In conclusion, we’d have to say that rumors of the slow death of California’s startup scene have been greatly exaggerated. Although all three of the top states for startup funding are high-tax, high cost-of-living locales, they’re also continuing to hit high marks in launching entrepreneurial companies and raising capital for them to grow.

Nonetheless, the data does reveal some apparent up-and-comers among startup hubs. Two that we notice are Pennsylvania and Utah.

Pennsylvania outperforms: I grew up in the Philadelphia area, so naturally I’m pleased to see the state ranking deservedly higher across our seed and early-stage metrics.

However, Philly can’t get all the credit for the rise. Pennsylvania has the good fortune of housing two startup hubs: Philly and Pittsburgh. Traditionally, Philadelphia has been a strong contender in biotech, with strength also in fintech, media and other sectors. Pittsburgh, as we’ve reported previously, is emerging as a hotbed for robotics, AI and transport.

Between those metro hubs, Pennsylvania saw a big rise year-over-year in round counts across all the categories we tracked (except for $50-plus million rounds, which were tied with 2017). Investment totals were also up markedly.

And don’t forget Utah: Utah has also been moving up in the ranks, delivering a particularly impressive performance given its population of just 3 million. By our estimates, Utah is the least-populated state to rank as a major startup hub.

Enterprise software is the dominant sector among sizably funded Utah companies. However, we also see a lot of non-SaaS business models pop up, in areas including fintech, audio devices and even peer-to-peer storage.

The takeaway: It looks like emerging early-stage startup hubs don’t need to siphon talent from the largest tech ecosystems to thrive. California, New York and Boston don’t appear to be losing their dominance. But that isn’t stopping smaller startup hubs from thriving too.

Methodology

The data set looks at funding levels by state. In most states, the vast majority of venture activity is in a single metro area. Exceptions are California, with the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as Pennsylvania, with both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. For rounds above $5 million, we limited the data set to startups founded after January 1, 2015.

We did not compare 2018 seed funding totals to prior years due to the fact that a sizable portion of seed rounds are reported and recorded in the Crunchbase data set months after they close. As a result, reported figures for recent months undercount total funding activity.


Source: TechCrunch

Master ‘Civilization VI’ with these starting tips for new players and veterans

‘Civilization VI’ offers both series veterans and total newcomers a lot to chew on from the get-go. Here are some essential starting tips to help you master the game’s many intricacies.

The post Master ‘Civilization VI’ with these starting tips for new players and veterans appeared first on Digital Trends.


Source: Digital trends

The state of the foldable

You’d be forgiven for being cynical. I’ve been seeing foldable display concepts for as long as I’ve been attending tech trade shows (which, quite frankly, is longer than I care to mention). Big names like Samsung and LG have been pumping countless R&D dollars into the technology in hopes of being first to next step in the evolution of the smart phone form factor.

The concept is nothing new, of course. The flip phone pre-dates the ubiquitous smartphone slab by decades. And a number of companies have tried to cheat the system. 2017’s Axon M was one of the more memorable attempts in recent memory — though that device amounted to little more than two screens jammed together on a hinge.

It bold and brash, but more than anything it was completely silly with an execution that left a lot to be desired. In my review, I called it “a fascinating mess.” But hey, ZTE deserves at least some credit for a run of products that attempted — with varying degrees of success — to buck the trend of samey smartphones.

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of technology in 2019, but I humbly offer you a beacon of light. This is the year smartphones become fun again. With their back to the corner, facing flagging sales, smartphone makers are taking leaps. Hell, it’s still January, and we’ve already caught a glimpse of what’s to compete.

At the front of the charger are foldables. That seems to be the term we’ve settled on for now — and it suits the category just fine. What convertibles were to the laptop category, foldables are to phones. True foldables require the display itself to do the folding, so devices can ostensibly transform from a one-handed smartphone to a larger tablet.

The Axon M didn’t fit the description for a number of reason, not the least of which was the gap between the two displays, which, quite frankly, made for a pretty crappy movie viewing experience, among others.

The first real foldable we’ve seen was a surprise contender. If the name “Royole” meant anything to you, prior to the Flex Pai, it was probably followed by the phrase “with cheese.” From the moment we first saw grainy footage of the handset, it was clear that being first and being best are rarely one and the same. “Folding screens are here,” I wrote at the time, “and they look crappy.”

I got some time with an updated version of the handset about a month later in China, and reappraised my initial impressions a bit. Even still, the Flex Pai didn’t and doesn’t strike me as much more than a little known company’s push bid to make a name for itself simply by being first.

Romain spent a bit more time with the device at CES, and appears to have come to similar conclusions. Royole does get credit for actually making the device a reality — even if it’s one that’s more developer focused than consumer. That does, of course, speak to a broader issue around usability.

It was a cause Google was happy to take up in November, when the company announced Android support for foldable displays. Like the notch before it, Google was attempting to get out ahead of the looming trend.

Here’s how Android VP Dave Burke described the category at the time, “You can think of the device as both a phone and a tablet, Broadly, there are two variants — two-screen devices and one-screen devices. When folded, it looks like a phone, fitting in your pocket or purse. The defining feature for this form factor is something we call screen continuity.”

It’s going to be fascinating to see if the industry coalesces around a single form factor here. The Flex Pai is one of the simpler ones — essentially operating like a sheet of paper that (somewhat awkwardly) folds in half so you can slip it in your pocket.

The same day that Google announced Android support, Samsung (briefly) showed off its own version of the technology. In the whooping 45 seconds the company devoted to it during a its two-hour keynote, we caught a glimpse of what looks to be an early prototype. Here, the device sports a display on the outside and unfolds to reveal a larger display within.

The “Infinity Flex Display” appeared at first glance to be more sophisticated than Royole’s — but “glance” is really the operative word here. It was a big, blocky prototype that we’ll be hearing more about at Unpacked next month.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, Xiaomi debuted what’s since come to be regarded as the most advanced of the bunch, but like Samsung, we only got a glimpse. And here it was in a much more controlled environment of a short, pre-recorded clip and extremely low resolution. That said, “the world’s first ever double folding phone” looks like a thing out of a sci-fi film.

The company, telling, tossed around the word “prototype” quite liberally there.

And then there’s Huawei. Mobile Chief Richard Yu highlight plans to announce a 5G folding phone at Mobile World Congress next month. As ever, details are scarce. Same goes for Motorola’s Razer, a $1,500 folding throwback, which is firmly in the rumor stages.

If that price point gives you pause, well, get used to it. The Flex Pai is already available at $1,300, and most other handsets are appear on track to hit roughly the same price point, making the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy devices look like a downright bargain.


Source: TechCrunch

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