Tech Crunch

Swiping right on virtual relationships

There’s an episode in the latest season of the Hulu original series Casual, where the main character, Alex, tries his hand at dating in virtual reality. He quickly meets a woman and develops a big, adrenaline-inducing crush only to realize she’s a scammer out for his credit card information.

The season takes place around 2021 or 2022, when technological advances have made dating in VR both possible and socially acceptable. We’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there as soon as the writers of the show think, but it’s time to imagine and plan for a future when entire relationships exist in and as a result of virtual reality.

Sextech entrepreneur and advocate Bryony Cole has built a career around the assumption that a full pivot to VR will happen in our lifetimes.

She’s the chief executive officer of Future of Sex, a podcast-turned-media company and sextech accelerator. Future of Sex has just released its inaugural report on virtual intimacy and plans to produce content on other topics at the intersection of technology and sex. 

Today, most people are more interested in Magic Leap’s new Angry Birds VR game than the ways in which VR can aid struggling relationships, but the report is full of interesting nuggets on how tech, like teledildonics (Internet-connected sex toys), is transforming intimacy.

There’s a whole class of startups named in the report embracing the notion that human experiences can be improved when powered by apps and devices. No, they aren’t advocating for you to bring your smartphone to the bedroom, but rather claiming that customizable tech can heighten the senses or create new avenues for exploration.

Kissenger, for example, has a mobile app that lets you exchange a kiss over the Internet. Fleshlight and Lovense sell Bluetooth-connected vibrators. And CamasutraVR streams virtual versions of real-life porn stars.

VR is the future of couples therapy

VR, Cole says, is a the forefront of the sextech industry’s transformation and if used correctly, can bolster relationships.

“It’s a new way for couples or thruples, or whatever relationship you’re in, to bond,” Cole told TechCrunch. “The ability to empathize with another person is enriched in this context, which is great, especially for understanding a lover.”

VR can facilitate more meaningful interactions for couples in long-distance relationships. If used right, it can fill the “intimacy gap,” or the space between a couple’s shared happiness and an individual’s personal happiness that, when too big, leads to many couple’s demise. 

As a safe space for experimentation, two people can explore fantasies, engage with educational content and even visit a couple’s therapist in VR. 

The release of the report is hot off the heels of Future of Sex’s fourth sextech hackathon. In New York, the company asked participants to create tech-enabled solutions to reinvent sex education for teenage boys, among other prompts. 

Women in sextech

Future of Sex partnered with porn site YouPorn to co-host the event and asked hackers to come up with ways to leverage YouPorn’s content, which includes VR porn, to improve the sex lives of viewers. VR porn is not a new phenomenon and while it can allow for more personal sexual experiences, researchers have warned that blurring the line between the real and the virtual could lead to ethical issues. How, for example, do you give consent in VR?

Women, who are often exploited for the purposes of sexual entertainment, need to be at the table while this content and other sextech are in development. Fortunately, Cole says, women are entering the sextech community in droves.

“[It’s] exploding at the moment and more and more women entrepreneurs are having a go at building a company,” she said. “It’s Important to highlight why women are getting involved in sextech especially in the current climate of #MeToo.”

On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Unbound, which makes fashion-forward vibrators and other sex toys for women, took home the second-place prize.

“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez told TechCrunch’s John Biggs.

Rodriguez is a close friend of Cole’s — the community is still small — and she’s appeared on the Future of Sex podcast.

The podcast, hackathons and the 12-week accelerator program for sextech startups are part of Cole’s effort to expand the dialogue around VR & sextech, invite new voices into the movement and remove the stigma around having open and honest conversations about sex and intimacy.

“There has to be a way to invite more people into this conversation,” she said. “If we can normalize the conversation, we can raise the standards around talking about sex.”

A Lime scooter rider died this morning in Washington, D.C., marking the second fatality this month

Lime, the 18-month-old, San Francisco-based company whose bright green bicycles and scooters now dot cities throughout the U.S., launched a pilot program in Tacoma, Washington, today, but that tiny victory might have felt short-lived. The reason: on the opposite side of the country, a Lime rider was killed today by an SUV while tooling around Washington D.C.’s DuPont neighborhood. The local fire department shared video of the rescue, which shows that the victim, an adult male, had to be pulled from the undercarriage of the vehicle.

It’s the second known fatality for the company following a death earlier this month in Dallas, when a 24-year-old Texas man fell off the scooter he was riding and died from blunt force injuries to his head.

On the one hand, the developments, while unfortunate, can hardly come as a surprise to anyone given how vulnerable riders or e-scooters are. E-scooter use is on the rise, with both Lime and its L.A.-based rival Bird, announcing this week that their customers have now taken north of 10 million rides. At the same time, city after city has deemed their use on sidewalks illegal out of fear that fast-moving riders will collide with and injure pedestrians. That leaves riders sharing city streets with the same types of giant, exhaust-spewing machines that they hope to increasingly displace. In fact, sales of traditional SUVs has continued to surge, thanks in part to low unemployment, high consumer confidence, and Americans’ enduring love with gigantic vehicles.

One solution to the issue, and one for which the e-scooter companies and their investors have been advocating, are protected lanes that would allow e-scooters to be operated more safely. Bird has even publicly offered to help fund new infrastructure that keeps cyclists and scooter riders safer.

Another possible answer would appear to be mandating the use of helmets with e-scooters, though California evidently disagrees. On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into a law that states Californians riding electric scooters will no longer be required to wear helmets as of January 1.

The bill was reportedly sponsored by Bird.

AdGuard resets all user passwords after account hacks

Popular ad-blocker AdGuard has forcibly reset all of its users’ passwords after it detected hackers trying to break into accounts.

The company said it “detected continuous attempts to login to AdGuard accounts from suspicious IP addresses which belong to various servers across the globe,” in what appeared to be a credential stuffing attack. That’s when hackers take lists of stolen usernames and passwords and try them on other sites.

AdGuard said that the hacking attempts were slowed thanks to rate limiting — preventing the attackers from trying too many passwords in one go. But, the effort was “not enough” when the attackers know the passwords, a blog post said.

“As a precautionary measure, we have reset passwords to all AdGuard accounts,” said Andrey Meshkov, AdGuard’s co-founder and chief technology officer.

AdGuard has more than five million users worldwide, and is one of the most prominent ad-blockers available.

Although the company said that some accounts were improperly accessed, there wasn’t a direct breach of its systems. It’s not known how many accounts were affected. An email to Meshkov went unreturned at the time of writing.

It’s not clear why attackers targeted AdGuard users, but the company’s response was swift and effective.

The company said it now has set stricter password requirements, and connects to Have I Been Pwned, a breach notification database set up by security expert Troy Hunt, to warn users away from previously breached passwords. Hunt’s database is trusted by both the UK and Australian governments, and integrates with several other password managers and identity solutions.

AdGuard also said that it will implement two-factor authentication — a far stronger protection against credential stuffing attacks — but that it’s a “next step” as it “physically can’t implement it in one day.”

Meituan-Dianping’s IPO off to a good start as shares climb 7% on debut

Meituan-Dianping (3690.HK) enjoyed a strong debut today in Hong Kong, a sign that investors are confident in the Tencent-backed company’s prospects despite its cash-burning growth strategy, heavy competition and a sluggish Hong Kong stock market.

During morning trading, Meituan’s shares reached a high of HKD$73.85 (about $9.41), a 7% increase over its initial public offering price of HKD$69. When Meituan reportedly set a target valuation of $55 billion for its debut, it triggered concerns that the company, which bills itself a “one-stop super app” for everything from food delivery to ticket bookings, as overconfident.

While Meituan, the owner of Mobile, is the leading online marketplace for services in China, it faces formidable competition from Alibaba’s Ele.me and operating on tight margins and heavy losses as it spends money on marketing and user acquisition costs. As it prepared for its IPO, Meituan was also under the shadow of underwhelming Hong Kong debuts by Xiaomi and China Tower. Like Xiaomi, Meituan is listed under a new dual-class share structure designed to attract tech companies by allowing them to give weighted voting rights to founders.

The sponsors of Meituan’s IPO are Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Google will match up to $1M in donations for Hurricane Florence relief

As cities in Hurricane Florence’s path deal with its aftermath, Google will match up to $1 million in donations to help with relief efforts.

The disaster’s death toll is currently 35 people and about 343,000 people in North Carolina are without electricity. The hurricane caused widespread flooding and property damage throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

 

Google drew attention to its Hurricane Florence donation campaign with a banner that appeared on top of Gmail for some users. Google has matched donations for other disasters before, including Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey last year. It’s also raised money for humanitarian efforts crises, like a 2015 matching program for up to $5.5 million in donations to provide aid to refugees in Europe. For that campaign, it temporarily added a “Donate” button to its search homepage.

The company is partnering with non-profit Network for God to collect and distribute funds. All donations will be directed to the American Red Cross, which Google said it chose to work with “because of their strong track record and existing response in the region.”

Other tech companies helping with Hurricane Florence relief include Amazon, which enabled Alexa users to make donations by saying “Alexa, donate to Hurricane Florence disaster relief” and sent trucks with food and donated items to affected areas, and Apple, which donated $1 million to the American Red Cross. Airbnb also offered free rooms to people fleeing the hurricane.

 

Ola raises $50M at a $4.3B valuation from two Chinese funds

Ola, the arch-rival of Uber in India, has raised $50 million at a valuation of about $4.3 billion from Sailing Capital, a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, and the China-Eurasian Economic Cooperation Fund (CEECF), a state-backed Chinese fund. The funding was disclosed in regulatory documents sourced by Paper.vc and reviewed by Indian financial publication Mint.

According to Mint, Sailing Capital and CEECF will hold a combined stake of more than 1% in Ola . An Ola spokesperson said the company has no comment.

Ola’s last funding announcement was in October, when it raised $1.1 billion (its largest funding round to date) from Tencent and returning investor SoftBank Group. Ola also said it planned to raise an additional $1 billion from other investors that would take the round’s final amount to about $2.1 billion.

At the time, a source with knowledge of the deal told TechCrunch that Ola was headed toward a post-money valuation of $7 billion once the $2.1 bllion raise was finalized. So while the funding from Sailing Capital and CEECF brings it closer to its funding goal, the latest valuation of $4.3 billion is still lower than the projected amount.

Ola needs plenty of cash to fuel its ambitious expansion both within and outside of India. In addition to ride hailing, Ola got back into the food delivery game at the end of last year by acquiring Foodpanda’s Indian operations to compete with UberEats, Swiggy, Zomato and Google’s Areo. It was a bold move to make as India’s food delivery industry consolidated, especially since Ola had previously launched a food delivery service that shut down after less than one year. To ensure the survival of Foodpanda, Ola poured $200 million into its new acquisition.

A few months later after buying Foodpanda, Ola announced the acquisition of public transportation ticketing startup Ridlr in an all-stock deal. Outside of India, Ola has been focused on a series of international launches. It announced today that it will begin operating in New Zealand, fast on the heels of launches in the United Kingdom and Australia (its first country outside of India) this year.

Marc and Lynne Benioff will buy Times magazine from Meredith for $190M

Another tech billionaire will scoop up a major news outlet. Meredith Corporation, which acquired Time Inc. in January, announced today that it has agreed to sell its eponymous magazine to Salesforce.com co-founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne Benioff for $190 million in cash.

Meredith said in March that it planned to sell Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money as part of its goal to save $400 million to $500 million over the next two years and increase the profitability of its remaining portfolio of publications. In its announcement today, the company said it will use proceeds from the sale of Times magazine to pay off debt and expects to reduce its debt by $1 billion during fiscal 2019.

Meredith’s acquisition of Time Inc. was controversial because it received financial support from Koch Equity Development, the private equity fund run by Charles and David Koch, known for backing conservative causes.

The Benioffs, who are on the other side of the spectrum as supporters of progressive politics, are purchasing Time magazine as individuals. In other words, Salesforce.com, where Benioff serves as chairman and co-CEO, and other companies are not involved with the deal. Marc Benioff told the Wall Street Journal that he and his wife will not be involved in Time magazine’s daily operations or editorial decisions and added that “we’re investing in a company with tremendous impact on the world, one that is also an incredibly strong business. That’s what we’re looking for when we invest as a family.”

Other tech billionaires who have purchased major publications include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in a personal capacity five years ago and Laurene Powell Jobs, whose philanthropic organization, Emerson Collective, acquired a majority stake in The Atlantic last year. (While Jack Ma was a driving force behind Alibaba Group’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post in 2016, that acquisition was made by the company, not Ma.)

Despite being one of the most famous and iconic news brands in the U.S., Times magazine has (like other print publications) struggled to cope with falling circulation and revenue as it invests digital properties.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the magazine’s editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, said “we’ve done a lot to transform this brand over the last few years so that it is far beyond a weekly magazine” and added that its business is “solidly profitable.”

Twitter now puts live broadcasts at the top of your timeline

Twitter will now put live streams and broadcasts started by accounts you follow at the top of your timeline, making it easier to see what they’re doing in realtime.

In a tweet, Twitter said that that the new feature will include breaking news, personalities and sports.

The social networking giant included the new feature in its iOS and Android apps, updated this week. Among the updates, Twitter said it’s now also supporting audio-only live broadcasts, as well as through its sister broadcast service Periscope.

Last month, Twitter discontinued its app for iOS 9 and lower versions, which according to Apple’s own data still harbors some 5 percent of all iPhone and iPad users.

North Korea skirts US sanctions by secretly selling software around the globe

Fake social media profiles are useful for more than just sowing political discord among foreign adversaries, as it turns out. A group linked to the North Korean government has been able to duck existing sanctions on the country by concealing its true identity and developing software for clients abroad.

This week, the US Treasury issued sanctions against two tech companies accused of running cash-generating front operations for North Korea: Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology or “China Silver Star,” based near Shenyang, China, and a Russian sister company called Volasys Silver Star. The Treasury also sanctioned China Silver Star’s North Korean CEO Jong Song Hwa.

“These actions are intended to stop the flow of illicit revenue to North Korea from overseas information technology workers disguising their true identities and hiding behind front companies, aliases, and third-party nationals,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said of the sanctions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in a follow-up story, North Korean operatives advertised with Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, solicited business with Freelance.com and Upwork, crafted software using Github, communicated over Slack and accepted compensation with Paypal. The country appears to be encountering little resistance putting tech platforms built by US companies to work building software including “mobile games, apps, [and] bots” for unwitting clients abroad.

The US Treasury issued its first warnings of secret North Korean software development scheme in July, though did not provide many details at the time. The Wall Street Journal was able to identify “tens of thousands” of dollars stemming from the Chinese front company, though that’s only a representative sample. The company worked as a middleman, contracting its work out to software developers around the globe and then denying payment for their services.

Facebook suspended many suspicious accounts linked to the scheme after they were identified by the Wall Street Journal, including one for “Everyday-Dude.com”:

“A Facebook page for Everyday-Dude.com, showing packages with hundreds of programs, was taken down minutes later as a reporter was viewing it. Pages of some of the account’s more than 1,000 Facebook friends also subsequently disappeared…

“[Facebook] suspended numerous North Korea-linked accounts identified by the Journal, including one that Facebook said appeared not to belong to a real person. After it closed that account, another profile, with identical friends and photos, soon popped up.”

Linkedin and Upwork similarly removed accounts linked to the North Korean operations.

Beyond the consequences for international relations, software surreptitiously sold by the North Korean government poses considerable security risks. According to the Treasury, the North Korean government makes money off of a “range of IT services and products abroad” including “website and app development, security software, and biometric identification software that have military and law enforcement applications.” For companies unwittingly buying North Korea-made software, the potential for malware that could give the isolated nation eyes and ears beyond its borders is high, particularly given that the country has already demonstrated its offensive cyber capabilities.

Between that and sanctions against doing business with the country, Mnuchin urges the information technology industry and other businesses to exercise awareness of the ongoing scheme to avoid accidentally contracting with North Korea on tech-related projects.

Golden Gate Ventures closes new $100M fund for Southeast Asia

Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures has announced the close of its newest (and third) fund for Southeast Asia at a total of $100 million.

The fund hit a first close in the summer, as TechCrunch reported at the time, and now it has reached full capacity. Seven-year-old Golden Gate said its LPs include existing backers Singapore sovereign fund Temasek, Korea’s Hanwha, Naver — the owner of messaging app Line — and EE Capital. Investors backing the firm for the first time through this fund include Mistletoe — the fund from Taizo Son, brother of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son — Mitsui Fudosan, IDO Investments, CTBC Group, Korea Venture Investment Corporation (KVIC), and Ion Pacific.

Golden Gate was founded by former Silicon Valley-based trio Vinnie Lauria, Jeffrey Paine and Paul Bragiel . It has investments across five markets in Southeast Asia — with a particular focus on Indonesia and Singapore — and that portfolio includes Singapore’s Carousell, automotive marketplace Carro, P2P lending startup Funding Societies, payment enabler Omise and health tech startup AlodokterGolden Gate’s previous fund was $60 million and it closed in 2016.

Some of the firm’s exits so far include the sale of Redmart to Lazada (although not a blockbuster), Priceline’s acquisition of WoomooLine’s acquisition of Temanjalan and the sale of Mapan (formerly Ruma) to Go-Jek. It claims that its first two funds have had distributions of cash (DPI) of 1.56x and 0.13x, and IRRs of 48 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

“When I compare the tech ecosystem of Southeast Asia (SEA) to other markets, it’s really hit an inflection point — annual investment is now measured in the billions. That puts SEA on a global stage with the US, China, and India. Yet there is a youthfulness that reminds me of Silicon Valley circa 2005, shortly before social media and the iPhone took off,” Lauria said in a statement.

A report from Google and Temasek forecasts that Southeast Asia’s digital economy will grow from $50 billion in 2017 to over $200 billion by 2025 as internet penetration continues to grow across the region thanks to increased ownership of smartphones. That opportunity to reach a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers — more of whom are online today than the entire U.S. population — is feeding optimism around startups and tech companies.

Golden Gate isn’t alone in developing a fund to explore those possibilities, there’s plenty of VC activity in the region.

Some of those include Openspace, which was formerly known as NSI Ventures and just closed a $135 million fund, Qualgro, which is raising a $100 million vehicle and Golden Equator, which paired up with Korea Investment Partners on a joint $88 million fund. Temasek-affiliated Vertex closed a $210 million fund last year and that remains a record for Southeast Asia.

Golden Gate also has a dedicated crypto fund, LuneX, which is in the process of raising $10 million.

Security flaw in ‘nearly all’ modern PCs and Macs exposes encrypted data

Most modern computers, even devices with disk encryption, are vulnerable to a new attack that can steal sensitive data in a matter of minutes, new research says.

In new findings published Wednesday, F-Secure said that none of the existing firmware security measures in every laptop it tested “does a good enough job” of preventing data theft.

F-Secure principal security consultant Olle Segerdahl told TechCrunch that the vulnerabilities put “nearly all” laptops and desktops — both Windows and Mac users — at risk.

The new exploit is built on the foundations of a traditional cold boot attack, which hackers have long used to steal data from a shut-down computer. Modern computers overwrite their memory when a device is powered down to scramble the data from being read. But Segerdahl and his colleague Pasi Saarinen found a way to disable the overwriting process, making a cold boot attack possible again.

“It takes some extra steps,” said Segerdahl, but the flaw is “easy to exploit.” So much so, he said, that it would “very much surprise” him if this technique isn’t already known by some hacker groups.

“We are convinced that anybody tasked with stealing data off laptops would have already come to the same conclusions as us,” he said.

It’s no secret that if you have physical access to a computer, the chances of someone stealing your data is usually greater. That’s why so many use disk encryption — like BitLocker for Windows and FileVault for Macs — to scramble and protect data when a device is turned off.

But the researchers found that in nearly all cases they can still steal data protected by BitLocker and FileVault regardless.

After the researchers figured out how the memory overwriting process works, they said it took just a few hours to build a proof-of-concept tool that prevented the firmware from clearing secrets from memory. From there, the researchers scanned for disk encryption keys, which, when obtained, could be used to mount the protected volume.

It’s not just disk encryption keys at risk, Segerdahl said. A successful attacker can steal “anything that happens to be in memory,” like passwords and corporate network credentials, which can lead to a deeper compromise.

Their findings were shared with Microsoft, Apple, and Intel prior to release. According to the researchers, only a smattering of devices aren’t affected by the attack. Microsoft said in a recently updated article on BitLocker countermeasures that using a startup PIN can mitigate cold boot attacks, but Windows users with “Home” licenses are out of luck. And, any Apple Mac equipped with a T2 chip are not affected, but a firmware password would still improve protection.

Both Microsoft and Apple downplayed the risk.

Acknowledging that an attacker needs physical access to a device, Microsoft said it encourages customers to “practice good security habits, including preventing unauthorized physical access to their device.” Apple said it was looking into measures to protect Macs that don’t come with the T2 chip.

When reached, Intel would not to comment on the record.

In any case, the researchers say, there’s not much hope that affected computer makers can fix their fleet of existing devices.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing Microsoft can do, since we are using flaws in PC hardware vendors’ firmware,” said Segerdahl. “Intel can only do so much, their position in the ecosystem is providing a reference platform for the vendors to extend and build their new models on.”

Companies, and users, are “on their own,” said Segerdahl.

“Planning for these events is a better practice than assuming devices cannot be physically compromised by hackers because that’s obviously not the case,” he said.

Job Today gets a $16M top up as it preps for Brexit bump

Accel-backed mobile-first jobs app Job Today has pulled in another $16M — an expansion to its November 2016 $20M Series B round. It raised a $10M Series A in January of the same year.

The 2015 founded startup offers a mobile app for job seekers that does away with the need for a CV.

Instead job seekers create a profile in the app and can apply to relevant jobs. Employers can then triage potential applicants via the app and chat to any they like the look of via its messaging platform.

The approach has been especially popular with fast turnover jobs in the service industry, such as hospitality and retail.

Job Today says it has more than five million job seekers registered on its platform, and claims to have delivered more than 100 million candidate applications to the 400,000+ predominantly small businesses posting jobs via the app to date (with 1M+ jobs posted). It currently operates in two markets: Spain and the UK.

The additional funding will be put towards expanding its presence in the UK market — where it says it’s seen “significant growth” in both job postings and candidate applications.

It says the overall volume of applications has increased by 46% year-on-year in the market, with the number of applications per candidate growing by 32% in the same period. The likes of Costa Coffee, Pret A Manger and Eat are named as among its “regular hirers”.

It’s also envisaging a Brexit bump for the local casual job market, as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union looks set to impact the supply of labor for employers…

Commenting in a statement, CEO Eugene Mizin, said: “The casual job market is often the first to experience the effects from macro-economic forces and Brexit will mean that many non-skilled and non-British workers will leave the UK. This will create a demand to fill casual jobs and create new opportunities for the less-skilled school, college and university leavers entering the workforce for the first time in 2019.”

The Series B expansion funds are coming from New York based investor 14W.

Job Today says it got additional growth uplift after integrating with Google Jobs — aka Google search’s built in AI-powered jobs engine. This launched in the UK in July 2018, and Job Today said it saw 101% growth in users in the first month of integration.

Twilio’s contact center products just got more analytical with Ytica acquisition

Twilio, a company best known for supplying a communications APIs for developers has a product called Twilio Flex for building sophisticated customer service applications on top of Twilio’s APIs. Today, it announced it was acquiring Ytica (pronounced Why-tica) to provide an operational and analytical layer on top of the customer service solution.

The companies would not discuss the purchase price, but Twilio indicated it does not expect the acquisition to have a material impact on its “results, operations or financial condition.” In other words, it probably didn’t cost much.

Ytica, which is based in Prague, has actually been a partner with Twilio for some time, so coming together in this fashion really made a lot of sense, especially as Twilio has been developing Flex.

Twilio Flex is an app platform for contact centers, which offers a full stack of applications and allows users to deliver customer support over multiple channels, Al Cook, general manager of Twilio Flex explained. “Flex deploys like SaaS, but because it’s built on top of APIs, you can reach in and change how Flex works,” he said. That is very appealing, especially for larger operations looking for a flexible, cloud-based solution without the baggage of on-prem legacy products.

What the product was lacking, however, was a native way to manage customer service representatives from within the application, and understand through analytics and dashboards, how well or poorly the team was doing. Having that ability to measure the effectiveness of the team becomes even more critical the larger the group becomes, and Cook indicated some Flex users are managing enormous groups with 10,000-20,000 employees.

Ytica provides a way to measure the performance of customer service staff, allowing management to monitor and intervene and coach when necessary. “It made so much sense to join together as one team. They have huge experience in the contact center, and a similar philosophy to build something customizable and programmable in the cloud,” Cook said.

While Ytica works with other vendors beyond Twilio, CEO Simon Vostrý says that they will continue to support those customers, even as they join the Twilio family. “We can run Flex and can continue to run this separately. We have customers running on other SaaS platforms, and we will continue to support them,” he said.

The company will remain in Prague and become a Twilio satellite office. All 14 employees are expected to join the Twilio team and Cook says plans are already in the works to expand the Prague team.

Chipmaker Renesas goes deeper into autonomous vehicles with $6.7B acquisition

Japan-based semiconductor firm Renesas — one of the world’s largest supplier of chips for the automotive industry — is scooping up U.S. chip company IDT in a $6.7 billion deal that increases its focus on self-driving technology.

Renesas produces microprocessor and circuits that power devices, and automotive is its core focus. It is second only to NXP on supply, and more than half of its revenue comes from automotive. IDT, meanwhile, includes power management and memory among its products, which focus on wireless networks and the converting and storing of data. Those are two areas that are increasingly important with the growth of connected devices and particularly vehicles which demand high levels of data streaming and interaction.

The acquisition of IDT — which is being made a 29.5 percent on its share price — is set to expand Renesas’ expertise on autonomous vehicles. The firm said it would also broaden its business into the “data economy” space, such as robotics, data centers and other types of connected devices.

Renesas has already demoed self-driving car tech, which puts it into direct competition with the likes of Intel . Last year, the firm paid $3.2 billion to buy up Intersil, which develops technology for controlling battery voltage in hybrid and electric vehicles, and IDT deal pushes it further in that direction.

“There’s little overlap between their product portfolios, so it’s a strategically sound move for Renesas. But it does seem like the price is a little high,” said Bloomberg analyst Masahiro Wakasugi.

The IDT deal has been on the table for a couple of weeks after Renesas first revealed its interest in an acquisition last month. It is expected to close in the first half of 2019 following relevant approvals.

The Boring Company proves life can be a video game

The Boring Company just posted a video on Twitter showing its latest digging machine can be controlled by an Xbox One controller. Because, if you’re going to dig holes, why not make it a bit of fun?

Software makes it easy to map PC controls to an Xbox pad. Instead of developing and fabricating a custom controller, using an Xbox gamepad is a cost-effective alternative for a lot of organizations. The military services agree. In its latest subs the US Navy tapped the Xbox 360 controller to maneuver submarine periscopes and the Army’s anti-drone laser uses an Xbox controller. They’re used to control robots and drones, too.

The reasoning is simple: A lot of research goes into game controllers. Microsoft reportedly spent over $100 million on the Xbox One controller, which, is just an updated version of the Xbox 360 controller. More than that, these controllers, whether of the Microsoft or Sony variant, are already familiar to most users. Operators do not have to learn a new set of controls. They can pick up a controller and be familiar within seconds.

And if the Xbox or Playstation controller doesn’t offer enough buttons, companies could always look to repurposing Steel Battalion controllers.

Best video game ever pic.twitter.com/DlGFsji76l

— The Boring Company (@boringcompany) September 8, 2018

Alibaba announces CEO Daniel Zhang will succeed Jack Ma as chairman next year

Following speculation about Jack Ma’s imminent retirement, Alibaba Group announced today that its CEO, Daniel Zhang, will succeed Ma as chairman next year. After stepping down as chairman on September 10, 2019 (exactly a year from now), Ma will continue serving as a board member until its annual general shareholders’ meeting in 2020.

After that, Ma will remain a lifetime partner of the Alibaba Partnership, or a group of 36 partners drawn from the senior management ranks of Alibaba Group companies and affiliates. They hold a considerable amount of sway over the company because they have the right to nominate, or in certain situations, appoint up to a simple majority of its board of directors.

Alibaba’s announcement follows reports that Ma’s retirement from the company he co-founded in 1999 as an online marketplace was imminent, with Ma, a former English teacher, planning to dedicate his time to philanthropy in education. Ma downplayed those reports, however, telling the South China Morning Post (which is owned by Alibaba) that instead he will gradually reduce his role in the company through a succession plan.

Ma stepped down as CEO in 2013, handing the position over to Jonathan Lu. Lu was replaced in 2015 by Zhang, Alibaba’s former COO, after Ma reportedly told employees that it’s time for the company to be run by people born in the 1970s and after (Zhang was born in 1972, three years after Lu).

In a letter sent to media outlets today, Ma wrote that Zhang has “demonstrated his superb talent, business acumen and determined leadership” since taking over as CEO. Under his stewardship, Alibaba has seen consistent and sustainable growth for 13 consecutive quarters. His analytical mind is unparalleled, he holds dear our mission and vision, he embraces responsibility with passion, and he has the guts to innovate and test creative business models.”

Ma added that “this transition demonstrates that Alibaba has stepped up to the next level of corporate governance from a company that relies on individuals, to one built on systems of organizational excellence and a culture of talent development.”

Ma also re-emphasized his narrative that his departure from Alibaba Group will be very gradual. “I have put a lot of thought and preparation into this succession plan for 10 years. I am delighted to announce the plan today thanks to the support of the Alibaba Partnership and our board of directors,” he wrote. “I also want to offer special thanks to all Alibaba colleagues and your families, because your trust, support and our joint enterprise over the past 19 years have prepared us for this day with confidence and strength.”

Of his plans after Zhang takes over as chairman next year, Ma said he will continue contributing to the Alibaba Partnership, before adding “I also want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do. The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things – because what if new dreams can be realized?! The one thing I can promise everyone is this: Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba.”

Hate speech, collusion, and the constitution

Half an hour into their two-hour testimony on Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were asked about collaboration between social media companies. “Our collaboration has greatly increased,” Sandberg stated before turning to Dorsey and adding that Facebook has “always shared information with other companies.” Dorsey nodded in response, and noted for his part that he’s very open to establishing “a regular cadence with our industry peers.”

Social media companies have established extensive policies on what constitutes “hate speech” on their platforms. But discrepancies between these policies open the possibility for propagators of hate to game the platforms and still get their vitriol out to a large audience. Collaboration of the kind Sandberg and Dorsey discussed can lead to a more consistent approach to hate speech that will prevent the gaming of platforms’ policies.

But collaboration between competitors as dominant as Facebook and Twitter are in social media poses an important question: would antitrust or other laws make their coordination illegal?

The short answer is no. Facebook and Twitter are private companies that get to decide what user content stays and what gets deleted off of their platforms. When users sign up for these free services, they agree to abide by their terms. Neither company is under a First Amendment obligation to keep speech up. Nor can it be said that collaboration on platform safety policies amounts to collusion.

This could change based on an investigation into speech policing on social media platforms being considered by the Justice Department. But it’s extremely unlikely that Congress would end up regulating what platforms delete or keep online – not least because it may violate the First Amendment rights of the platforms themselves.

What is hate speech anyway?

Trying to find a universal definition for hate speech would be a fool’s errand, but in the context of private companies hosting user generated content, hate speech for social platforms is what they say is hate speech.

Facebook’s 26-page Community Standards include a whole section on how Facebook defines hate speech. For Facebook, hate speech is “anything that directly attacks people based on . . . their ‘protected characteristics’ — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, or serious disability or disease.” While that might be vague, Facebook then goes on to give specific examples of what would and wouldn’t amount to hate speech, all while making clear that there are cases – depending on the context – where speech will still be tolerated if, for example, it’s intended to raise awareness.

Twitter uses a “hateful conduct” prohibition which they define as promoting “violence against or directly attacking or threatening other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” They also prohibit hateful imagery and display names, meaning it’s not just what you tweet but what you also display on your profile page that can count against you.

Both companies constantly reiterate and supplement their definitions, as new test cases arise and as words take on new meaning. For example, the two common slang words to describe Ukrainians by Russians and Russians by Ukrainians was determined to be hate speech after war erupted in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. An internal review by Facebook found that what used to be common slang had turned into derogatory, hateful language.

Would collaboration on hate speech amount to anticompetitive collusion?

Under U.S. antitrust laws, companies cannot collude to make anticompetitive agreements or try to monopolize a market. A company which becomes a monopoly by having a superior product in the marketplace doesn’t violate antitrust laws. What does violate the law is dominant companies making an agreement – usually in secret – to deceive or mislead competitors or consumers. Examples include price fixing, restricting new market entrants, or misrepresenting the independence of the relationship between competitors.

A Pew survey found that 68% of Americans use Facebook. According to Facebook’s own records, the platform had a whopping 1.47 billion daily active users on average for the month of June and 2.23 billion monthly active users as of the end of June – with over 200 million in the US alone. While Twitter doesn’t disclose its number of daily users, it does publish the number of monthly active users which stood at 330 million at last count, 69 million of which are in the U.S.

There can be no question that Facebook and Twitter are overwhelmingly dominant in the social media market. That kind of dominance has led to calls for breaking up these giants under antitrust laws.

Would those calls hold more credence if the two social giants began coordinating their policies on hate speech?

The answer is probably not, but it does depend on exactly how they coordinated. Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have grown large internal product policy teams that decide the rules for using their platforms, including on hate speech. If these teams were to get together behind closed doors and coordinate policies and enforcement in a way that would preclude smaller competitors from being able to enter the market, then antitrust regulators may get involved.

Antitrust would also come into play if, for example, Facebook and Twitter got together and decided to charge twice as much for advertising that includes hate speech (an obviously absurd scenario) – in other words, using their market power to affect pricing of certain types of speech that advertisers use.

In fact, coordination around hate speech may reduce anti-competitive concerns. Given the high user engagement around hate speech, banning it could lead to reduced profits for the two companies and provide an opening to upstart competitors.

Sandberg and Dorsey’s testimony Wednesday didn’t point to executives hell-bent on keeping competition out through collaboration. Rather, their potential collaboration is probably better seen as an industry deciding on “best practices,” a common occurrence in other industries including those with dominant market players.

What about the First Amendment?

Private companies are not subject to the First Amendment. The Constitution applies to the government, not to corporations. A private company, no matter its size, can ignore your right to free speech.

That’s why Facebook and Twitter already can and do delete posts that contravene their policies. Calling for the extermination of all immigrants, referring to Africans as coming from shithole countries, and even anti-gay protests at military funerals may be protected in public spaces, but social media companies get to decide whether they’ll allow any of that on their platforms. As Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman has stated, “There’s no right to free speech on Twitter. The only rule is that Twitter Inc. gets to decide who speaks and listens–which is its right under the First Amendment.”

Instead, when it comes to social media and the First Amendment, courts have been more focused on not allowing the government to keep citizens off of social media. Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina law that made it a crime for a registered sex offender to access social media if children use that platform. During the hearing, judges asked the government probing questions about the rights of citizens to free speech on social media from Facebook, to Snapchat, to Twitter and even LinkedIn.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made clear during the hearing that restricting access to social media would mean “being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas [a]nd [that] the First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information.”

The Court ended up deciding that the law violated the fundamental First Amendment principle that “all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen,” noting that social media has become one of the most important forums for expression of our day.

Lower courts have also ruled that public officials who block users off their profiles are violating the First Amendment rights of those users. Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, of the Southern District of New York, decided in May that Trump’s Twitter feed is a public forum. As a result, she ruled that when Trump blocks citizens from viewing and replying to his posts, he violates their First Amendment rights.

The First Amendment doesn’t mean Facebook and Twitter are under any obligation to keep up whatever you post, but it does mean that the government can’t just ban you from accessing your Facebook or Twitter accounts – and probably can’t block you off of their own public accounts either.

Collaboration is Coming?

Sandberg made clear in her testimony on Wednesday that collaboration is already happening when it comes to keeping bad actors off of platforms. “We [already] get tips from each other. The faster we collaborate, the faster we share these tips with each other, the stronger our collective defenses will be.”

Dorsey for his part stressed that keeping bad actors off of social media “is not something we want to compete on.” Twitter is here “to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one, we know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”

He even went further. When it comes to the drafting of their policies, beyond collaborating with Facebook, he said he would be open to a public consultation. “We have real openness to this. . . . We have an opportunity to create more transparency with an eye to more accountability but also a more open way of working – a way of working for instance that allows for a review period by the public about how we think about our policies.”

I’ve already argued why tech firms should collaborate on hate speech policies, the question that remains is if that would be legal. The First Amendment does not apply to social media companies. Antitrust laws don’t seem to stand in their way either. And based on how Senator Burr, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chose to close the hearing, government seems supportive of social media companies collaborating. Addressing Sandberg and Dorsey, he said, “I would ask both of you. If there are any rules, such as any antitrust, FTC, regulations or guidelines that are obstacles to collaboration between you, I hope you’ll submit for the record where those obstacles are so we can look at the appropriate steps we can take as a committee to open those avenues up.”

Coinbase plots to become the New York Stock Exchange of crypto securities

The future of Coinbase looks something like the New York Stock Exchange. That’s according a vision laid out by CEO Brian Amstrong who was interviewed on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco today.

Coinbase is known for being the most popular exchange for converting fiat currency into crypto — most of the largest traded exchanges are crypto-to-crypto — but he foresees a future in which it plays host to a growing number of cryptocurrencies as it becomes standard for companies to create their own token, which runs alongside equity as an alternative investment system.

“It makes sense that any company out there who has a cap table… should have their own token. Every open source project, every charity, potentially every fund or these new types of decentralized organizations [and] apps, they’re all going to have their own tokens,” Armstrong said.

“We want to be the bridge all over the world where people come and they take fiat currency and they can get it into these different cryptocurrencies,” he added.

Brian Armstrong (Coinbase) says crypto regulation will result in the next version of the stock market #TCDisrupt pic.twitter.com/2kyxAmhPSZ

— TechCrunch (@TechCrunch) September 7, 2018

That tokenized future could see Coinbase host hundreds of tokens within “years” and even potentially “millions” in the future, according to Armstrong. That’s a big jump on the five cryptocurrencies that it currently supports today, and it would make it way larger than financial institutions like the New York Stock Exchange, which is actually a Coinbase investor and is getting into Bitcoin, or the NASDAQ.

One of the critical pieces of making this vision a reality is, of course, regulation. This week at Disrupt, others in crypto space have argued that a lack of clarity around crypto regulation is costing the U.S. as innovation and startups are being developed in overseas markets. As the founder of a U.S.-based crypto startup that is valued at over $1 billion and is hiring hard, Armstrong doesn’t subscribe to that thesis but he did admit that there is “a big open question” over whether the majority of the new rush of tokens he foresees will be securities or not.

Still, Coinbase has made moves to add security tokens to its portfolio with the acquisition of a securities dealer earlier this year.

“We do feel a substantial subset of these tokens will be securities,” he said. “Our approach has always been to be the most trusted [exchange] and the easiest to use. So we want to be the legal compliant place where you can start to trade these tokens that are classified as securities.”

“Web 1.0 was about publishing information, web 2.0 was about interaction and web 3.0 is going to be about value transfer on the internet because now the web has this native currency and so applications can be built that instantly tap into this global economy on the internet,” Armstrong added.

How international can crypto become? The Coinbase CEO thinks that the total number of people in the crypto ecosystem can reach one billion within the next five years, up from around 40 million today.

You can watch the full video from Armstrong’s interview below.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Goldman CFO: the story about us dropping Bitcoin trading was ‘fake news’

It sometimes feels like the price of Bitcoin rises and falls on the turn of a speculative dime, and yesterday we saw one such moment come to pass, when it was reported that Goldman Sachs was planning to drop a plan to build a Bitcoin trading platform, causing the price of the cryptocurrency to crash. But today, at TechCrunch Disrupt, the CFO of Goldman Sachs described the story as “fake news,” and said that in fact the bank is still considering how to offer services that involved physical Bitcoin, but that it has not yet set a timeline for it.

“I was in New York yesterday and I was co-chairing our risk committee, and I saw the news article,” said CFO Marty Chavez, referring to the report yesterday. “It wasn’t like we announced anything or that anything had changed for us… I never thought I’d hear myself actually use this term, but I’d really have to describe that as fake news.”

As Chavez described it, Goldman Sachs had been building a Bitcoin trading platform modelled on a commodities futures trading platform, where there is never any Bitcoin traded, but more the promise of how the currency might move.

“Our institutional clients said, ‘We would love for you to clear these new Bitcoin-linked futures contracts offered by the exchanges,’ so we’ve been doing that, and then clients since May [started to ask], ‘We would like for you also to provide us liquidity and trade the principal as principal the futures contracts, not just clear them,’ and so we’ve been doing that, the next stage of the exploration, what we call ‘non-deliverable forwards.’

“These are derivatives, over the counter derivatives,” he continued. “They’re settled in U.S. dollars and the reference price is the Bitcoin U.S. dollar price established by a set of exchanges, the same one that’s referenced in the futures contracts, and we’re working on that now because the clients wanted physical Bitcoin — something tremendously interesting and tremendously challenging. From the perspective of custody, we don’t yet see an institutional grade custody cases custodian solution for Bitcoin.”

While companies like Coinbase are trying to tap into that demand by offering custodial services aimed squarely at institutional money, but Goldman itself still has no timeline for when its own offering might be ready.

“We’re interested in having that exist, and it’s a long road and so I would just be speculating. Maybe someone who was thinking about our activities here got very excited that we would be making markets as principal and physical Bitcoin, and as they got into realizing that that’s part of the evolution but it’s not here yet.”

Bitcoin — and the crypto market generally — suffered significant price losses this week off the back of reports of Goldman’s aborted plans, but that wasn’t the sole trigger. Reuters also reported that EU is looking into regulating crypto and is preparing a report that proposes to regulate exchanges and ICOs.

Bitcoin hit a record valuation of nearly $20,000 in January, and it has struggled to return to those highs during the rest of this year. The cryptocurrency was priced at $6,536 at the time of writing, some way short of a months-long high of $8,266 on July 26, according to information from Coinmarketcap.com.

iRobot’s new Roomba knows where it’s going

The Roomba i7+ looks like, well, it looks like a Roomba. There are few factors distinguishing the product from the last several generations. The rollers are bright green, along with a large Automatic Dirt Disposal section just below. Beyond that, however, it’s nearly identical to what you’ll already find on store shelves.

For iRobot co-founder and CEO Colin Angle, however, the product represents the culmination of the company’s nearly 30-year existence. “This is the thing,” the executive explains. “This is the Roomba I’ve always wanted to make.”

The latest version of the robotic vacuum represents a number of advances over its predecessor, chief among them the ability to know where it’s going and remember where it’s been. It’s a skill Angle has teased for a few years now, including several appearances on TechCrunch — and high atop the list of the line’s most requested features.

The feature has been teased in past versions of the home robot. Last year, the company added Clean Mapping to the 900 series. The feature lets the robot create an indoor map of the home, showing where the Roomba spent most of its time and helping it return home to the dock, even when it’s on the other side of the home.

With the i7+, however, Roomba will be able to recognize different rooms.

“The idea that we can build this system that remembers what’s going on in the home is the big leap,” Angle tells TechCrunch. “The 900 built maps, but didn’t remember them. The goal of organizing information to enable the smart home required this robot. For the company, it’s huge. We transition from being a company that is building robots to a company that is organizing spatial information in the home. There’s a data dimension to the company that can now actually be talked about.”

This is accomplished, in part, due to a large jump in computational power  — 50x over the 900 series, according to the CEO. While most users refresh their Roombas at roughly the same rate as smartphones (every two to three years), the bump in on-board tech means the company is able to offer a device that continuously updates over the life of the product.

“It’s much more of a platform at this point,” Angle says. “We can improve your robot, and you should expect the robot to be more of a software product. Your ability to interact with it and the sophistication of what it can do at launch versus a year from now is actually going to be pretty different. The next time it can be smarter about what it can do.”

iRobot gave us a sneak peek of the product on a recent trip to its Bedford, Mass. headquarters. The iRobot HOME lab is a 4,000-square-foot fake home protected by a series of secure doors. It’s much nicer and much larger than my own New York City apartment, save for the notes that line different piece of furniture, warning visitors not to do things like lie on the bed.

The company showed off the tech by mapping roughly half the space for the new Roomba, code-named “Lewis,” as a tip of the cap to one half of the famed duo of 19th century American explorers. The combination of  iAdapt 3.0 Navigation with vSLAM location mapping makes the robot able to navigate to a destination chosen by the user. The recent additions of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa means users can command the robot with their voice.

There’s one more key hardware addition for the i7+, which addresses another longstanding complaint with the Roomba. The Clean Base is a large bin attached to the charging dock. Using the Automatic Dirt Disposal system, the Roomba is able to empty its own bin. You’ll still have to clean out the larger bin, of course, but only 1/30th of the time of the on-board system. When that bag is full, the user will get a notification from the app.

The i7+ is up for presale starting today, priced at $699. The clean base runs another $299. The robot will start shipping in September. You also can get a sneak peek of the system this week at TechCrunch Disrupt.

WSJ reports that Theranos will finally dissolve

Theranos is reportedly finally closing down for good, nearly three years after a Wall Street Journal investigation called its blood testing technology into question. The WSJ said the company, whose dramatic downfall spawned a best-selling book that’s set to be filmed with Jennifer Lawrence starring as Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, sent shareholders an email saying it will formally dissolve and seek to pay unsecured creditors its remaining cash in the coming months.

Holmes resigned as CEO in June after she and Theranos’ former president, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud in June.

Both Holmes and Balwani had already been charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission (the criminal charges are separate from the civil ones filed by the SEC). In its complaint, the SEC said the two engaged in “an elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business and financial performance,” which ultimately enabled them to raise more than $700 million from investors.

Holmes and the SEC settled the charges by having Holmes agree to pay a $500,000 penalty and be barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company for 10 years. She was also required to return the remaining 18.9 million shares she obtained while engaging in fraud and relinquish voting control of Theranos.

TechCrunch has sent an email to Theranos’ public relations address asking for comment.

Shine grabs $9.3 million to build a bank for freelancers

French startup Shine is raising a $9.3 million (€8 million) Series A round. The company is building an alternative to traditional bank accounts for freelancers working in France.

XAnge is leading today’s round with existing investor Daphni also participating, as well as business angels Gilles Samoun and Ed Zimmerman. The company previously raised $3.3 million (€2.8 million) from Daphni, Kima Ventures and various business angels.

While it’s pretty easy to get started as a freelancer in many countries, France is not one of them. You need to register a “micro-company”, report your earnings for corporate taxes, report sales tax collection in some cases and more.

Arguably, it has gotten much easier recently with a ton of resources to get started. But Shine wants to go one step further and package everything you need in an app.

Shine starts by helping you register your company. After downloading the app, the company will guide you through the process — you need to take a photo of your ID and fill out a form. It feels like signing up to a social network. Compared to the official process, Shine’s process is less intimidating and easier to understand.

You can send and receive money from your Shine account just like in any banking app. Shine gives you your own banking information (IBAN) to receive payments and pay using direct debit. A few days later, you receive a debit card. You can temporarily lock the card or disable some features in the app, such as ATM withdrawals and online payments.

Shine doesn’t handle IBAN and cards directly. The company partners with Treezor for those banking features.

If you’re a rider on Deliveroo and UberEats, or if you work with a freelancer marketplace, such as Malt, Side, Upwork and Brigad, all you need to do is enter your Shine IBAN on those platforms. If you work with clients directly, Shine has an integrated invoicing system. It generates a web page and a PDF that you can send to your clients. When a client opens the page, you get a notification. They can pay with a card.

Finally, Shine reminds you when you have to pay your taxes and has a customer support team that can help you figure out what you need to do. They’re slowly building a comprehensive knowledge base on being a freelancer in France.

Shine is free for everything I just described except if you choose to accept card payments on your invoices. But even for that feature, it remains quite cheap.

The company plans to launch a premium plan in the coming months with advanced accounting features. So far, 25,000 freelancers are using Shine in France. And 10 percent of new freelancers (“micro-entrepreneurs”) register their company through Shine.

While challenger banks, such as N26 and Revolut are widely successful, it’s great to see some companies focus on niche markets with the same approach. Shine is a breath of fresh air for freelancers in France. The company is making the process so much easier for newcomers.

Microsoft no longer taking new enrollments for its Surface Plus financing program

Microsoft has quietly ended its Surface Plus financing program about a year after it launched. In a message on its site, the company said it stopped taking new enrollments on August 31 “after much thought and consideration.” The change does not affect existing customers, however, who will still be covered by their current financing plans.

Financed by Klarna, a Stockholm-headquartered online financial services provider, the Surface Plus financing program launched in August 2017. It targeted students and other people who wanted an affordable way to own a Surface device, allowing them to spread payments over 24 months. The Surface Plus plan also enabled customers to upgrade to the latest device after 18 months, as long as they returned their previous device in good working condition.

In a FAQ, Microsoft said existing customers will still be able to upgrade their Surface under the plan’s terms. The program’s end also does not affect existing warranty plans.

Microsoft’s Surface Plus for Business payment plans launched around the same time as the Surface Plus program and it looks like it will continue. TechCrunch has contacted Microsoft for more information.

Used car site Vroom is raising $70M six months after a big round of layoffs

After cutting a big portion of its staff in March, Vroom is back pitching investors. Yesterday, the site for buying and selling used cars filed to raise $70 million in new equity funding.

Vroom has already secured $30 million of that $70 million target, signaling confidence from investors that it’ll become profitable and beat out key competitors in the space, like Carvana and Shift.

The startup wants to make the process of buying a used car as easy as ordering a pizza. With more than 3,000 cars for sale on the site, Vroom delivers directly to its customers’ doorsteps. Since it was founded in 2013, Vroom has brought in $320 million from General Catalyst, T. Rowe Price, Altimeter and others, reaching a valuation of $655 million in July 2017.

Vroom declined to comment on its upcoming round.

As part of the March layoffs, Vroom, which is headquartered in New York City, also shuttered its Dallas, Texas and Whitestown, Indiana locations. The official number of employees Vroom let go is unclear, though when news of the layoffs broke, the company listed 845 employees on its website. Today, the site list “600+” or about 30% fewer employees.

The cuts, the company said, were part of a restructuring that would allow Vroom to focus on profitability. This is what the company had to say in March:

“While Vroom’s business is healthy and financially stable, we’re always looking to align our resources to fulfill our long-term vision and deliver on our mission,” the statement said. “In sharpening our focus on profitability, we recently made some adjustments to our strategy that has impacted our headcount. While decisions like this are never easy, we are putting the company in a better position to become the leader in online car buying and continue to invest in future areas of growth.”

It’s not surprising Vroom is back in the fundraising game. Buying and selling cars is a capital-intensive business. 

Vroom’s competitors have similarly raised a lot of capital. Carvana brought in more than $300 million in equity funding, as well as $400 million in debt, before hitting the stock markets in 2017. Shift has raised roughly $110 million to date. Beepi, a cautionary tale in the business of selling used cars online, landed $150 million in VC funding, then failed to sell its business twice, ultimately selling for parts to multiple buyers, including Vroom.

How Silicon Valley should celebrate Labor Day

Ask any 25-year old engineer what Labor Day means to him or her, and you might get an answer like: it’s the surprise three-day weekend after a summer of vacationing. Or it’s the day everyone barbecues at Dolores Park. Or it’s the annual Tahoe trip where everyone gets to relive college.

Or simply, it’s the day we get off because we all work so hard.

And while founders and employees in startup land certainly work hard, wearing their 80-hour workweeks as a badge of honor, closing deals on conference calls in an air-conditioned WeWork is a far cry from the backbreaking working conditions of the 1880s, the era when Labor Day was born.

For everyone here in Silicon Valley, we should not be celebrating this holiday triumphantly over beers and hot dogs, complacent in the belief that our gravest labor issues are behind us, but instead use this holiday as a moment to reflect on how much further we have to go in making our workplaces and companies more equitable, diverse, inclusive and ethically responsible.

Bloody Beginnings

On September 5th, 1882, 10,000 workers gathered at a “monster labor festival” to protest the 12-hours per day, seven days a week harsh working conditions they faced in order to cobble together a survivable wage. Even children as “young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country.”

This all erupted in a climax in 1894 when the American Railway Union went on a nationwide strike, crippling the nation’s transportation infrastructure, which included trains that delivered postal mail. President Grover Cleveland declared this a federal crime and sent in federal troops to break up the strike, which resulted in one of the bloodiest encounters in labor history, leaving 30 dead and countless injured.

Labor Day was declared a national holiday a few month later in an effort to mend wounds and make peace with a reeling and restless workforce (it also conveniently coincided with President Cleveland’s reelection bid).

The Battle is Not Yet Won

Today in Silicon Valley, this battle for fair working conditions and a living wage seems distant from our reality of nap rooms and lucrative stock grants.  By all accounts, we have made tremendous strides on a number of critical labor issues. While working long hours is still a cause for concern, most of us can admit that we often voluntarily choose to work more than we have to. Our workplace environments are not perfect (i.e. our standing desks may not be perfectly ergonomic), but they are far from life-threatening or hazardous to our health. And while equal wages are still a concern, earning a living wage is not, particularly if the worst case scenario after “failing” at a startup means joining a tech titan and clocking in as a middle manager with a six-figure salary.

Even though the workplace challenges of today are not as grave as life or death, the fight is not yet over. Our workplaces are far from perfect, and the power dynamic between companies and employees is far from equal.

In tech, we face a myriad of issues that need grassroots, employee-driven movements to effect change. Each of the following issues has complexities and nuances that deserve an article of its own, but I’ve tried to summarize them briefly: 

  1. Equal pay for equal work – while gender wage gaps are better in tech than other industries (4% average in tech vs. 20% average across other industries), the discrepancy in wages for women in technical roles is twice the average for other roles in tech.
  2. Diversity – research shows that diverse teams perform better, yet 76% of technical jobs are still held by men, and only 5% of tech workers are Black or Latino. The more alarming statistic in a recent Atlassian survey is that more than 40% of respondents felt that their company’s diversity programs needed no further improvement.
  3. Inclusion – an inclusive workplace should be a basic fundamental right, but harassment and discrimination still exist. A survey by Women Who Tech found that 53 percent of women working in tech companies reported experiencing harassment (most frequently in the form of sexism, offensive slurs, and sexual harassment) compared to 16 percent of men.
  4. Outsourced / 1099 employees – while corporate employees at companies like Amazon are enjoying the benefits of a ballooning stock, the reality is much bleaker for warehouse workers who are on the fringes of the corporate empire. A new book by undercover journalist James Bloodworth found that Amazon workers in a UK warehouse “use bottles instead of the actual toilet, which is located too far away.” A separate survey conducted found that 55% of these workers suffer from depression, and 80% said they would not work at Amazon again.Similarly, Foxconn is under fire once again for unfair pay practices, adding to the growing list of concerns including suicide, underage workers, and onsite accidents. The company is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, and builds products for Amazon, Apple, and a host of other tech companies.
  5. Corporate Citizenship & Ethics – while Silicon Valley may be a bubble, the products created here are not. As we’ve seen with Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica breach, these products impact millions of lives. The general uncertainty and uneasiness around the implications of automation and AI also spark difficult conversations about job displacement for entire swaths of the global population (22.7M by 2025 in the US alone, according to Forrester).

Thus, the reversal in sentiment against Silicon Valley this past year is sending a message that should resonate loud and clear — the products we build and the industries we disrupt here in the Valley have real consequences for workers that need to be taken seriously.

Laboring toward a better future

To solve these problems, employees in Silicon Valley needs to find a way to organize. However, there are many reasons why traditional union structures may not be the answer.

The first is simply that traditional unions and tech don’t get along. Specifically, the AFL-CIO, one of the largest unions in America, has taken a hard stance against the libertarian ethos of the Valley, drawing a bright line dividing the tech elite from the working class. In a recent speech about how technology is changing work, the President of the AFL-CIO did not mince words when he said that the “events of the last few years should have made clear that the alternative to a just society is not the libertarian paradise of Silicon Valley billionaires. It is a racist and authoritarian nightmare.”

But perhaps the biggest difference between what an organized labor movement would look like in Silicon Valley and that of traditional organized labor is that it would be a fight not to advance the interest of the majority, but to protect the minority. In the 1880s, poor working conditions and substandard pay affected nearly everyone — men, women, and children. Unions were the vehicles of change for the majority.

But today, for the average male 25-year old engineer, promoting diversity and inclusion or speaking out about improper treatment of offshore employees is unlikely to affect his pay, desirability in the job market, or working conditions. He will still enjoy the privileges of being fawned over as a scarce resource in a competitive job market. But the person delivering the on-demand service he’s building won’t. His female coworker with an oppressive boss won’t. This is why it is ever more important that we wake up and not only become allies or partners, but champions of the causes that affect our less-privileged fellow coworkers, and the people that our companies and products touch.

So this Labor Day, enjoy your beer and hot dog, but take a moment to remember the individuals who fought and bled on this day to bring about a better workplace for all. And on Tuesday, be ready to challenge your coworkers on how we can continue that fight to build more diverse, inclusive, and ethically responsible companies for the future. 

Google denies Trump’s claim that it did not promote his State of the Union address

Google is pushing back against a claim by Donald Trump that the search engine stopped promoting State of the Union livestreams on its homepage after his presidency began. Trump’s claim came in the from of a tweeted video, which was still pinned to the top of his profile when this post was published at 9:30 PM PST, Aug. 29, 2018, after Google’s refutation and multiple media reports of its inaccuracy.

Hashtagged #stopthebias, the video appears to show that Google did not display links to livestreams of Trump’s first public speech to a joint session of Congress on February 28, 2017 or his first State of the Union on January 30, 2018, despite promoting Obama’s State of the Union addresses in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

#StopTheBias pic.twitter.com/xqz599iQZw

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2018

Google, however, says it did indeed highlight Trump’s first State of the Union in 2018, but that it usually does not include links on its homepage to a president’s first public address to Congress, so neither Obama nor Trump’s were featured. In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, the company said “On January 30, 2018, we highlighted the livestream of President Trump’s State of the Union on the google.com homepage. We have historically not promoted the first address to Congress by a new President, which is technically not a State of the Union address. As a result, we didn’t include a promotion on google.com for this address in either 2009 or 2017.”

Google statement to @JohnPaczkowski on Trump’s tweet pic.twitter.com/1w82mQqApg

— Jon Passantino (@passantino) August 29, 2018

The video shared by Trump does not make a distinction between a president’s first public speech to a joint session of Congress and his first State of the Union address.

A discrepancy in Google’s logo also suggests that at least one of the screenshots, which appear to have been taken from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, was doctored. A Gizmodo commenter notes that one of the screenshots in the video Trump tweeted, from January 12, 2016, shows a version with the previous Google logo, not the sans-serif version introduced in September 2015, which can be seen in a Wayback Archive’s screen capture from January 10, 2016 and other days from that month when a Google Doodle wasn’t featured.

Capture from the video tweeted from President Trump’s account

One of Wayback Machine’s captures on January 10, 2016

Furthermore, while a link to Trump’s State of the Union does not appear on archived versions of Google’s homepage from January 30, 2018, it does show up on a capture from 1AM on January 31, as Twitter user @WrockBro notes. That may be because the Wayback Machine uses Greenwich Mean Time time stamps.

Not only that, but also this: https://t.co/RfJIKpYGJX

🅱en🛸JPL (@WrockBro) August 30, 2018

The Wayback Machine capture linked by Twitter user @WrockBro

Trump’s tweet is the part of his current onslaught against Google, other tech companies and mainstream media, which he accuses of having a liberal bias and burying news about his administration. It is worth pointing out, however, that Trump’s 2017 first speech to Congress was widely praised as “presidential” by journalists across the political spectrum, even liberal publications. In turn, they were ridiculed by critics for being awed by a president acting presidential.

Bernie Sanders’ problem with Amazon

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is seeking additional information about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses in advance of legislation he’s preparing to introduce on September 5. 

Income inequality was, after all, the centerpiece of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. It was a populist message that resonated strongly with voters, giving the dark horse candidate a boost among concerned progressives and independents during a tooth and nail primary battle.

But while the message, perhaps, wasn’t enough to put him over the top, it’s a mission that’s remained central to Sanders’ work on Capitol Hill, finding him taking aim at some of the world’s largest corporations. In recent months, Amazon has been in the senator’s sights.

Earlier today, Sanders tweeted out a link asking employees of the online retail giant to share their experiences working for the company. The form allows current and former Amazon employees to share their stories either on the record or anonymously. It asks whether workers “struggle[d] with the demanding working conditions,” and whether they required public assistance.

Are you a current or former Amazon employee? Please share your experiences with Sen. Bernie Sanders . https://t.co/fQzm3SuyXA

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 28, 2018

In a phone call today, Sanders told TechCrunch that his office already knows enough about the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but is seeking additional information as it prepares to introduce legislation on September 5.

“We know that the median salary for Amazon employees is about $28,000,” the Senator told TechCrunch. “And about half the workers who work for Amazon make less than $28,000 a year.”

It’s easy to see why the company has become a prime target for Sanders. A recent SEC filing put the median salary at $28,446 — less than owner Jeff Bezos makes every 10 seconds.

“We have every reason to believe that many, many thousands of Amazon workers in their warehouses throughout the country are earning very low wages,” Sanders explained. “It’s hard to get this information. Amazon has not been very forthcoming. From what information we’ve gathered, one out of three Amazon workers in Arizona, as we understand it, are on public assistance. They are receiving either Medicaid, food stamps or public housing.”

The Senator acknowledges that nothing about what Amazon is doing, on the face of it, is breaking any laws. But the discrepancy between its highest and lowest wage earners is enough for him to call into question why government subsidies are required to buoy those on the bottom rung. This is precisely what the proposed legislation aims to address.

Put simply, Sanders says we have every reason to believe that the richest man in the world can afford to pay employees more.

“The taxpayers in this country should not be subsidizing a guy who’s worth $150 billion, whose wealth is increasing by $260 million every single day,” said Sanders. “That is insane. He has enough money to pay his workers a living wage. He does not need corporate welfare. And our goal is to see that Bezos pays his workers a living wage.”

While Amazon is notoriously tight-lipped about matters these matters, the company has been on the defensive since the senator made it a kind of pet project. Amazon won’t comment directly on the forthcoming legislation until it’s made official, but the company did provide TechCrunch with comment regarding the blowback.

“We encourage anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime. That’s in addition to our full benefits package that includes health, vision and dental insurance, retirement, generous parental leave, and skills training for in-demand jobs through our Career Choice program, which has over 16,000 participants.”

Amazon further suggests that those interested in learning more about warehouse conditions book a tour of one of its fulfillment centers to “see for themselves.” 

A representative from Sanders’ office tells TechCrunch that Amazon invited the senator on a tour of a fulfillment center, and he plans to take the company up on the offer.

SAN FERNANDO DE HENARES, SPAIN – 2018/07/16: General view of the Amazon warehouse in San Fernando de Henares.

Of course, the concerns over Amazon’s treatment of workers aren’t new. Mother Jones ran an exposé of what it was like working as an Amazon warehouse slave in 2012. In 2013, Gawker published a series of emails from employees discussing life in fulfillment centers citing things like “unrealistic goals,” “very short breaks” and “below zero temps” in warehouses. A protestor cited by The Guardian in 2014 said it was better to be homeless than work for the retailer. And, most recently, Business Insider documented the “horror stories” faced by the Amazon warehouse workers, including nonstop surveillance and so little ability to take breaks, they couldn’t even use the facilities, when needed.  

Amazon has since been on something of a charm offensive in response to those PR headaches.

Last week, there was the odd phenomenon of an army of Twitter accounts claiming to be warehouse workers who were serving up similar talking points.

“Hello!” one wrote, cheerfully. “I work in an Amazon FC in WA and our wages and benefits are very good. Amazon pays FC employess [sic] ~30% more than traditional retail stores and offers full medical benefits from day 1. Working conditions are very good- clean/well lit- Safety is a top priority at my facility!”

That Amazon positions its own offerings as “highly competitive” can, perhaps, be seen as something of an indictment of larger issues with warehouse fulfillment. While the company is an easy target, it’s certainly not alone. And Sanders notes that his office is casting the net wider than just Amazon. Disney and Walmart have also been targeted by the senator.

In June, Sanders told a crowd at an Anaheim church, “I want to hear the moral defense of a company that makes $9 billion in profits, $400 million for their CEOs and have a 30-year worker going hungry. Tell me how that is right.” 

A month later, he took to Twitter to call out CEO Bob Iger directly, writing, “Does Disney CEO Bob Iger have a good explanation for why he is being compensated more than $400 million while workers at Disneyland are homeless and relying on food stamps to feed their families?”

Does Disney CEO Bob Iger have a good explanation for why he is being compensated more than $400 million while workers at Disneyland are homeless and relying on food stamps to feed their families?

— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 13, 2018

Earlier this week, however, Disney reached an agreement with the Walt Disney World union to pay workers a $15 minimum wage.

“We’ve seen real progress at the Disney corporation,” Sanders told TechCrunch, “and I believe that Jeff Bezos can play a profound role in American society today if he were to say, ‘yes, I’m the richest guy in the world. I will pay my workers a living wage at least $15 and make sure all of my workers have the security and dignity they need. I will improve conditions.’”

Amazon and Walmart, meanwhile, remain the two key targets for the impending legislation. With Democrats in the minority in the U.S. Senate, it seems unlikely that a hearing will be called where Bezos would be asked to testify à la Mark Zuckerberg, but the senator plans to go ahead with the legislation next week, regardless.  

“That legislation is pretty simple,” explained Sanders. “It says: if you are a large company of 500 or more employees and you’re paying your workers wages that are so low that they have to go on food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, etc., then you have to pay taxes commensurate to how much the government is now spending for that assistance. It’s going to be the employer – the Jeff Bezos, the Walton family – who will pick up the tab for these public assistance programs, rather than the middle class of the country.”

Twitter suspends more accounts for “engaging in coordinated manipulation”

Following last week’s suspension of 284 accounts for “engaging in coordinated manipulation,” Twitter announced today that it’s kicked an additional 486 accounts off the platform for the same reason, bringing the total to 770 accounts.

While many of the accounts removed last week appeared to originate from Iran, Twitter said this time that about 100 of the latest batch to be suspended claimed to be in the United States. Many of these were less than a year old and shared “divisive commentary.” These 100 accounts tweeted a total of 867 times and had 1,268 followers between them.

Since our initial suspensions last Tuesday, we have continued our investigation, further building our understanding of these networks. In addition, we suspended an additional 486 accounts for violating the policies outlined last week. This brings the total suspended to 770.

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 27, 2018

As examples of the “divisive commentary” tweeted, Twitter shared screenshots from several suspended accounts that showed anti-Trump rhetoric, counter to the conservative narrative that the platform unfairly targets Republican accounts.

Fewer than 100 of the 770 suspended accounts claimed to be located in the U.S. and many of these were sharing divisive social commentary. On average, these 100 Tweeted 867 times, were followed by 1, 268 accounts, and were less than a year old. Examples below. pic.twitter.com/LQhbvFjxSo

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) August 27, 2018

Twitter also said that the suspended accounts included one advertiser that spent $30 on Twitter ads last year, but added those ads did not target the U.S. and that the billing address was outside of Iran.

“As with prior investigations, we are committed to engaging with other companies and relevant law enforcement entities. Our goal is to assist investigations into these activities and where possible, we will provide the public with transparency and context on our efforts,” Twitter said on its Safety account.

After years of accusations that it doesn’t enforce its own policies about bullying, bots and other abuses, Twitter has taken a much harder line on problematic accounts in the past few months. Despite stalling user growth, especially in the United States, Twitter has been aggressively suspending accounts, including ones that were created by users to evade prior suspensions.

Twitter announced a drop of one million monthly users in the second quarter, causing investors to panic even though it posted a $100 million profit. In its earnings call, Twitter said that its efforts don’t impact user numbers because many of the “tens of millions” of removed accounts were too new or had been inactive for more than a month and were therefore not counted in active user numbers. The company did admit, however, that it’s anti-spam measures had caused it to lose three million monthly active users.

Whatever its impact on user numbers, Twitter’s anti-abuse measures may help it save face during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on September 5. Executives from Twitter, Facebook and Google are expected to be grilled by Sen. Mark Warner and other politicians about the use of their platforms by other countries to influence U.S. politics.

China announces transportation industry reform, days after murder of Didi carpooling passenger

The Chinese government announced it will reform the transportation industry to safeguard passengers, three days after a female passenger was allegedly raped and murdered by a Didi Chuxing driver last Friday. Provinces and autonomous regions are now tasked with setting up passenger safety committees by the end of this month and ensuring that incidents are investigated promptly.

The crime led to the suspension of Hitch, Didi Chuxing’s carpooling service, and the firing of two executives: Hitch’s general manager and Didi’s vice president of customer services. This is not the first time, however, that Didi has been forced pull back on Hitch. Earlier this year, it suspended night operations after a female passenger was allegedly murdered by an unregistered driver who had accessed the service using his father’s account. Nighttime Hitch rides then resumed in June after Didi put new safety measures in place, including a rule that prohibited drivers from accepting ride requests by passengers of the opposite sex during certain hours.

The latest incident took place on Friday in the eastern province of Zhejiang and is especially concerning because the driver had been flagged just one day before the murder by another female passenger who complained that he followed her after she left his vehicle. In a statement, Didi said a safety center representative failed to follow corporate policy and initiate an investigation within two hours. The company also admitted that its customer service procedures has “many deficiencies” and said it will “plead for law enforcement and the public to work with us in developing more efficient and practical collaborative solutions to fight criminals and protect user personal and property safety.”

China’s police and transport ministries have already said that Didi bears “unshirkable responsibility” for Friday’s murder. The company has already been accused of being too lax with passenger safety, leaving its users–particularly women–vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault.

What stunned me while reporting this was the numbers. According to Southern Weekly, at least 53 women have been raped or sexually harassed by Didi drivers in the past 4 yrs?! Caixin says there are 14 rapes linked to Didi drivers, citing court docs. https://t.co/Me0oBXRyxo

— Sui-Lee Wee 黄瑞黎 (@suilee) August 27, 2018

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the agency that enacts strategies for China’s economic and social development, posted its announcement, titled “Concerning untrustworthy behavior in the emerging transportation sector,” online on Monday morning.

In it, the NDRC said it will put measures into place to root out untrustworthy and dishonest operators in China’s transportation industry, which has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Provinces and autonomous regions must form committees and procedures to ensure passenger safety by August 31 and share information about violations and offenders with other municipalities.

While the NDRC mentioned all transportation sectors, including railways, airplanes and ships, it singled out passenger vehicles, including buses, shuttles and cabs, in one passage and ordered municipalities to investigate offenses in a timely manner. Operators that don’t take action quickly to fix “untrustworthy behavior” risk being placed on a blacklist and having their names published on government websites.

Pirated Twitch streams hijack YouTube’s pay-per-view Logan Paul/KSI boxing match

Today, there was a little bit of a skirmish between two professional YouTubers. Our dear old friend Logan Paul and KSI had an actual boxing match at the Manchester Arena where 15,000 tickets were sold (!!!!!!!!) for an event that ultimately ended in a draw and vows for a rematch.

The action onstage wasn’t the only place where viewers could get a look into the action, there was a $10 pay-per-view stream on YouTube, but more people seemed to end up watching pirated streams on Twitch with boxing fight streams reaching over a million concurrent users at one point. Streams also popped up on Twitter-owned Periscope and there were a few unofficial streams popping up on YouTube as well.

There is now over 2 million concurrent viewers for the KSI Logan Paul fight. 800,000 on the official YouTube stream that cost $10 to watch, and 1.2 million watching for free on Twitch. #KSIvLogan pic.twitter.com/ZZ0FYHLzOn

— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) August 25, 2018

Now, forget the parties involved and the topic and the motivations for a moment if you can. I understand if it might feel more than a little difficult to feel remorse for the parties involved, that has been a common refrain for pirated content popping up from whatever group for whatever reason though.

There’s obviously a big difference between free curiosity and $10 curiosity for an event like this but it seems pretty apparent that having access to a free stream on an easily-accessible mainstream site probably dissuaded some people from paying for the event on YouTube. While people may have previously scoured the web for pop-up ridden sites to view something like this, Twitch and other services unofficially served it up on a platter.

There are plenty of events similar to this one, but so often the refrain is made that people have to turn to pirated streams because the alternative is paying for cable or something that is really against the spirit of these easy-to-access platforms. Well, here’s an example of something that falls far outside that argument.

It’s impossible to squash all of the pirated streams, but Amazon’s Twitch is a bit too mature to be hosting pirated streams in such rampant numbers without being a little more proactive — instead of just relying on user reports to police pirated content that was fairly hard to avoid stumbling upon on the platform.

Even as tech companies continue to try and crack live content, services like Twitch that don’t proactively search out users hijacking streams of big events like this really serve to complicate and deter their own goals of eventually finding a way to monetize big events like this.

Elon Musk: Tesla will remain a public company

Tesla will remain a public company, CEO Elon Musk said Friday night, less than three weeks after he announced to the world via Twitter that he was considering taking the electric automaker private at $420 a share.

Musk, who posted the announcement via Tesla’s blog, said Friday that after speaking with shareholders and investigating the process of taking the company private he believes the better path is for Tesla to remain public. Musk met with Tesla’s board of directors Thursday and told him his decision. The board agreed, he wrote.

Here’s an excerpt:

Given the feedback I’ve received, it’s apparent that most of Tesla’s existing shareholders believe we are better off as a public company. Additionally, a number of institutional shareholders have explained that they have internal compliance issues that limit how much they can invest in a private company. There is also no proven path for most retail investors to own shares if we were private. Although the majority of shareholders I spoke to said they would remain with Tesla if we went private, the sentiment, in a nutshell, was “please don’t do this.”

I knew the process of going private would be challenging, but it’s clear that it would be even more time-consuming and distracting than initially anticipated. This is a problem because we absolutely must stay focused on ramping Model 3 and becoming profitable. We will not achieve our mission of advancing sustainable energy unless we are also financially sustainable.

That said, my belief that there is more than enough funding to take Tesla private was reinforced during this process.

Friday night’s announcement closes a tumultuous 17 days that began with Musk tweeting that he secured funding and was considering taking Tesla private. The tweet wasn’t warmly embraced by the Tesla board or many shareholders. It also prompted the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate.

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/10268726522903797

While this 17-day ride might be over, the questions over Musk’s behavior (and possible drug use) and the company’s future are likely not.

Epic Games just gave a perk for folks to turn on 2FA; every other big company should, too

Let’s talk a bit about security.

Most internet users around the world are pretty crap at it, but there are basic tools that companies have, and users can enable, to make their accounts, and lives, a little bit more hacker-proof.

One of these — two-factor authentication — just got a big boost from Epic Games, the maker of what is currently The Most Popular Game In The World: Fortnite.

Epic is already getting a ton of great press for what amounts to very little effort.

Son: Do you know what two-factor authentication is?
Me: Uh, yeah?
Son: I get a free dance on @Fortnitegame if I enable two factor. Can we do that?

Incentives matter.

— Dennis (@DennisF) August 23, 2018

The company is giving users a new emote (the victory dance you’ve seen emulated in airports, playgrounds and parks by kids and tweens around the world) to anyone who turns on two-factor authentication. It’s one small (dance) step for Epic, but one giant leap for securing their users’ accounts.

The thing is any big company could do this (looking at you Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and any other company with a huge user base).

Apparently the perk of not getting hacked isn’t enough for most users, but if you give anyone the equivalent of a free dance, they’ll likely flock to turn on the feature.

It’s not that two-factor authentication is a panacea for all security woes, but it does make life harder for hackers. Two-factor authentication works on codes, basically tokens, that are either sent via text or through an over-the-air authenticator (OTA). Text messaging is a pretty crap way to secure things, because the codes can be intercepted, but OTAs — like Google Authenticator or Authy — are sent via https (pretty much bulletproof, but requiring an app to use).

So using SMS-based two-factor authentication is better than nothing, but it’s not Fort Knox (however, these days, even Fort Knox probably isn’t Fort Knox when it comes to security).

Still, anything that makes things harder for crimes of opportunity can help ease the security burden for companies large and small, and the consumers and customers that love them (or at least are forced to pay and use them).

I’m not sure what form the perk could or should take. Maybe it’s the promise of a free e-book or a free download or an opportunity to have a live chat with the celebrity, influencer or athlete of a user’s choice. Whatever it is, there’re clearly something that businesses could do to encourage greater adoption.

Self-preservation isn’t cutting it. Maybe an emote will do the trick.

LinkedIn’s China rival Maimai raises $200M ahead of planned US IPO

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

Maimai, China’s biggest rival to LinkedIn, has revealed today that it received a $200 million D Series investment back in April in what the company claims to be the largest investment in the professional networking market. That’s surprising but correct: LinkedIn went public in 2011 and was bought by Microsoft for $26 million in 2016, but it raised just over $150 million from investors as a private company.

Global venture capital DST led the round for Maimai which include participation from existing investors of IDG, Morningside Venture Capital, and DCM.

The new capital takes Maimai to $300 million raised from investors, according to CrunchbaseCaixin reports that the valuation of the company is more than $1 billion which would see the firm enter the global unicorn club.

Beyond the fundraising, the firm said it plans to invest RMB 1 billion (around $150 million) over the next three years in a career planning program that it launched in partnership with over 1,000 companies. Those partners include global top-500 firm Cisco and Chinese companies such as Fashion Group and Focus Media.

This investment could be the last time Maimai taps the private market for cash. That’s because the company is gearing up for a U.S. IPO and overseas expansion in the second half of 2019, according to the company founder and CEO Lin Fan.

Launched in the fall of 2013, Maimai aims particularly at business people as a platform to connect professional workers and offer employment opportunities. The service now claims over 50 million users. As a Chinese counterpart of LinkedIn, Maimai has competed head-on with Chinese arm of the U.S. professional networking giant since its establishment and gradually gained an upper hand with features tailored to local tastes.

maimai

It can be hard to gauge the population of social networks, but Chinese market research firm iResearch ranked Maimai ahead of LinkedIn for the first time in the rankings of China’s most popular social networking apps in April last year. The firm further gained ground this year as its user penetration rate reaching 83.8 percent in June, far higher than LinkedIn China’s 11.8 percent, according to data from research institute Analysys.

As a China-born company, Maimai gained momentum over the past two years with localized features, such as anonymous chat, mobile-first design, real-name registration, and partnerships with Chinese corporations. But like all Chinese tech services, it is subject to the state’s tight online regulation. The government watchdog has ordered Maimai to remove the anonymous posting section on its platform last month. The same issue applies to LinkedIn, which has been criticized for allowing its Chinese censorship to spill over and impact global users.

With assistance from Jon Russell

Cootek, the Chinese maker of TouchPal keyboard, files for $100M US IPO

Cootek, the Chinese mobile internet company best known for keyboard app TouchPal, has filed for a public offering in the United States. In its F-1 form, submitted last week to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Cootek said it wants to raise up to $100 million.

The Shanghai-based company began operating in 2008, when TouchPal was launched, and incorporated as CooTek in March 2012. In its SEC filing, Cootek said it currently has 132 million daily active users, with average DAUs increasing 75% year-over-year as of June. It also said it achieved 453% total ad revenue growth in the six month period before June.

While AI-based TouchPal, which offers glide typing and predictive text, is Cootek’s most popular product, it also has 15 other apps in its portfolio, including fitness apps HiFit and ManFIT and a virtual assistant called Talia. The company uses its proprietary AI and big data technology to analyze language data collected from users and the Internet. Then it uses those insights to develop lifestyle, healthcare and entertainment apps. Together, those 15 apps reached an average of 22.2 million monthly average users and 7.3 million daily average users in June.

TouchPal itself had 125.4 million daily average users in June 2018, with active users launching the app an average of 72 times a day. It currently supports 110 languages.

Most of Cootek’s revenue comes from mobile advertising. It says net revenue grew from $11 million in 2016 to $37.3 million in 2017, or 238.5% year-over-year, while its net loss dropped from $30.7 million in 2016 to $23.7 million in 2017. It achieved net income of $3.5 million for the six months ending in June, compared to a net loss of $16.2 million in the same period a year ago.

Cootek plans to be listed under the ticker symbol CTK on the New York Stock Exchange and will use the IPO’s proceeds to grow its user base, invest in AI and natural language processing tech and improve advertising performance. The offering will be underwritten by underwritten by Credit Suisse, BofA Merrill Lync and Citi.

Robotics-as-a-service is on the way and inVia Robotics is leading the charge

The team at inVia Robotics didn’t start out looking to build a business that would create a new kind of model for selling robotics to the masses, but that may be exactly what they’ve done.

After their graduation from the University of Southern California’s robotics program, Lior Alazary, Dan Parks, and Randolph Voorhies, were casting around for ideas that could get traction quickly.

“Our goal was to get something up and running that could make economic sense immediately,’ Voorhies, the company’s chief technology officer, said in an interview.

The key was to learn from the lessons of what the team had seen as the missteps of past robotics manufacturers.

Despite the early success of iRobot, consumer facing or collaborative robots that could operate alongside people had yet to gain traction in wider markets.

Willow Garage, the legendary company formed by some of the top names in the robotics industry had shuttered just as Voorhies and his compatriots were graduating, and Boston Dynamics, another of the biggest names in robotics research, was bought by Google around the same time — capping an six-month buying spree that saw the search giant acquire eight robotics companies.

In the midst of all this we were looking around and we said, ‘God there were a lot of failed robotics companies!’ and we asked ourselves why did that happen?” Voorhies recalled. “A lot of the hardware companies that we’d seen, their plan was: step one build a really cool robot and step three: an app ecosystem will evolve and people will write apps and the robot will sell like crazy. And nobody had realized how to do step 2, which was commercialize the robot.”

So the three co-founders looked for ideas they could take to market quickly.

The thought was building a robot that could help with mobility and reaching for objects. “We built a six-degree-of-freedom arm with a mobile base,” Voorhies said.

However, the arm was tricky to build, components were expensive and there were too many variables in the environment for things to go wrong with the robot’s operations. Ultimately the team at inVia realized that the big successes in robotics were happening in controlled environments. 

“We very quickly realized that the environment is too unpredictable and there were too many different kinds of things that we needed to do,” he said. 

Parks then put together a white paper analyzing the different controlled environments where collaborative robots could be most easily deployed. The warehouse was the obvious choice.

Back in March of 2012 Amazon had come to the same conclusion and acquired Kiva Systems in a $775 million deal that brought Kiva’s army of robots to Amazon warehouses and distribution centers around the world.

“Dan put a white paper together for Lior and I,” Voorhies said, “and the thing really stuck out was eCommerce logistics. Floors tend to be concrete slabs; they’re very flat with very little grade, and in general people are picking things off a shelf and putting them somewhere else.”

With the idea in place, the team, which included technologists Voorhies and Parks, and Lazary, a serial entrepreneur who had already exited from two businesses, just needed to get a working prototype together.

Most warehouses and shipping facilities that weren’t Amazon were using automated storage and retrieval systems, Voorhies said. These big, automated systems that looked and worked like massive vending machines. But those systems, he said, involved a lot of sunk costs, and weren’t flexible or adaptable.

And those old systems weren’t built for random access patterns and multi-use orders which comprise most of the shipping and packing that are done as eCommerce takes off.

With those sunk costs though, warehouses are reluctant to change the model. The innovation that Voorhies and his team came up with, was that the logistics providers wouldn’t have to.

“We didn’t like the upfront investment, not just to install one but just to start a company to build those things,” said Voorhies. “We wanted something we could bootstrap ourselves and grow very organically and just see wins very very quickly. So we looked at those ASRS systems and said why don’t we build mobile robots to do this.”

In the beginning, the team at inVia played with different ways to build the robot.l first there was a robot that could carry several different objects and another that would be responsible for picking.

The form factor that the company eventually decided on was a movable puck shaped base with a scissor lift that can move a platform up and down. Attached to the back of the platform is a robotic arm that can extend forward and backward and has a suction pump attached to its end. The suction pump drags boxes onto a platform that are then taken to a pick and pack employee.

We were originally going to grab individual product.s. Once we started talking to real warehouses more and more we realized that everyone stores everything in these boxes anyway,” said Voorhies. “And we said why don’t we make our lives way easier, why don’t we just grab those totes?” 

Since bootstrapping that initial robot, inVia has gone on to raise $29 million in financing to support its vision. Most recently with a $20 million round which closed in July.

“E-commerce industry growth is driving the need for more warehouse automation to fulfill demand, and AI-driven robots can deliver that automation with the flexibility to scale across varied workflows. Our investment in inVia Robotics reflects our conviction in AI as a key enabler for the supply chain industry,” said Daniel Gwak, Co-Head, AI Investments at Point72 Ventures, the early stage investment firm formed by the famed hedge fund manager, Steven Cohen.

Given the pressures on shipping and logistics companies, it’s no surprise that the robotics and automation are becoming critically important strategic investments, or that venture capital is flooding int the market. In the past two months alone, robotics companies targeting warehouse and retail automation have raised nearly $70 million in new financing. They include the recent raised $17.7 million for the French startup Exotec Solutions and Bossa Nova’s $29 million round for its grocery store robots.

Then there are warehouse-focused robotics companies like Fetch Robotics, which traces its lineage back to Willow Garage and Locus Robotics, which is linked to the logistics services company Quiet Logistics.

“Funding in robotics has been incredible over the past several years, and for good reason,” said John Santagate, Research Director for Commercial Service Robotics at Research and Analysis Firm IDC, in a statement. “The growth in funding is a function of a market that has become accepting of the technology, a technology area that has matured to meet market demands, and vision of the future that must include flexible automation technology. Products must move faster and more efficiently through the warehouse today to keep up with consumer demand and autonomous mobile robots offer a cost-effective way to deploy automation to enable speed, efficiency, and flexibility.”

The team at inVia realized it wasn’t enough to sell the robots. To give warehouses a full sense of the potential cost savings they could have with inVia’s robots, they’d need to take a page from the software playbook. Rather than selling the equipment, they’d sell the work the robots were doing as a service.

“Customers will ask us how much the robots cost and that’s sort of irrelevant,” says Voorhies. “We don’t want customers to think about those things at all.”

Contracts between inVia and logistics companies are based on the unit of work done, Voorhies said. “We charge on the order line,” says Voorhies. “An order line is a single [stock keeping unit] that somebody would order regardless of quantity… We’re essentially charging them every time a robot has to bring a tote and present it in front of a person. The faster we’re able to do that and the less robots we can use to present an item the better our margins are.”

It may not sound like a huge change, but those kinds of efficiencies matter in warehouses, Voorhies said. “If you’re a person pushing a cart in a warehouse that cart can have 35 pallets on it. With us, that person is standing still, and they’re really not limited to a single cart. They are able to fill 70 orders at the same time rather than 55,” he said.

At Rakuten logistics, the deployment of inVia’s robots are already yielding returns, according to Michael Manzione, the chief executive officer of Rakuten Super Logistics.

“Really [robotics] being used in a fulfillment center is pretty new,” said Manzione in an interview. “We started looking at the product in late February and went live in late March.”

For Manzione, the big selling point was scaling the robots quickly, with no upfront cost. “The bottom line is ging to be effective when we see planning around the holiday season,” said Manzione. “We’re not planning on bringing in additional people, versus last year when we doubled our labor.”

As Voorhies notes, training a team to work effectively in a warehouse environment isn’t easy.

The big problem is that it’s really hard to hire extra people to do this. In a warehouse there’s a dedicated core team that really kicks ass and they’re really happy with those pickers and they will be happy with what they get from whatever those people can sweat out in a shift,” Voorhies said. “Once you need to push your throughput beyond what your core team can do it’s hard to find people who can do that job well.” 

The tech angle in dogs, mac and cheese and working out

Welcome back to TechCrunch Mixtape, the podcast where Megan Rose Dickey and I, Henry Oliver Pickavet, talk about some of the stories of the week that we feel like talking about. This week it was dogs, working out and mac and cheese.

BarkBox creators Bark and Co. decided that Nashville, Tenn., needed a place for dogs to take their humans. Naturally they created a dog park that includes space for humans to convene and drink coffee with their friends and hop on the Wi-Fi while the dogs get down to doing dog things. There is a membership fee, of course.

Mac and cheese is the next thing we talked about because Y Combinator invested money in a restaurant called Mac’d. It’s not got much of a tech angle aside from making itself available for delivery-via-app in Portland. Niche. But there is nothing wrong with talking about mac and cheese, because come on.

And finally, Tonal this week came out with the first workout machine that I actually want in my studio apartment. (I will find room.) The system doesn’t use weights, but rather electromagnetism to simulate and control weight.

Next week, we have Sarah Cooper in the studio for a chat about her new book “How to Succeed Without Hurting Men’s Feelings,” and it’s great. You can pre-order it here. In the meantime, click play below to listen to this week’s episode. And if you haven’t subscribed yet, what are you waiting for? Find us on Apple PodcastsStitcherOvercastCastBox or whatever other podcast platform you can find.

Coinbase now supports buying and selling Ethereum Classic

Coinbase has added a new buying option for its customers after the crypto exchange introduced Ethereum Classic to its collection.

The addition was first announced in July but Coinbase took its time to implement its newest addition following criticism over the way it added Bitcoin Cash last year. Allegations of insider trading led the company to investigate the incident which saw service outages and wild price fluctuations for Bitcoin Cash right after its addition to the exchange. It later introduced a framework for adding new tokens.

Nonetheless, Ethereum Classic’s value spiked 20 percent on last month’s news. Today, though, it is down two percent over the last 24 hours, according to Coinmarketcap.com.

Coinbase has taken a conservative approach to adding more crypto. Today’s addition takes it to five tokens — Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash are the others — but that’s likely to change this year. Last month, it announced it is “exploring” the addition of another five tokens while CTO Balaji Srinivasan hinted that the selection would grow further when I interviewed him at the recent TechCrunch blockchain event in Zug.

“We hear your requests, and are working hard to make more assets available to more customers around the world,” Dan Romero, who heads Coinbase’s consumer business, said in a blog post published today.

A note on Ethereum Classic — it was created in June 2016 following a major hack on The DAO, a fundraising vehicle for the project. In short: the Ethereum Foundation created a new version of Ethereum — known today as Ethereum — that rescued the lost funds, while those who opposed continued on with the original chain which was known as Ethereum Classic.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Crypto firm Pantera Capital is looking to raise up to $175 million for a new venture fund

Pantera Capital, which has made its mark in recent years by investing early and often in a wide variety of digital assets, is looking to raise up to $175 million for its third venture fund — an enormous jump from the $25 million it deployed for its second venture fund and its $13 million debut venture fund, which it closed in 2013.

Firm partner Paul Veradittakit says the target amount is a “function of how fast the space is moving, the talent coming in, the opportunities, and the sizing of rounds. With more interesting later-stage investments [on our radar], too, we want to be flexible and able to move with the market.”

Whether the firm closes with $175 million or another number is an open question. A newly processed SEC filing shows it has so far rounded up more than $71 million in capital commitments from 90 investors, an amount that Veradittakit calls a “first close.”

Certainly, Pantera is accustomed to managing meaningful sums of money. In addition to its venture funds, which are structured like most traditional venture funds — they feature a 10-year investing period, similar economics, and involve good old-fashioned checks to startups in exchange for some amount of equity — the firm is also juggling three other strategies.

As we reported last year, one of its newest funds is a hedge fund that’s focused exclusively on initial coin offerings. As firm founder Dan Morehead told us at the time, Pantera buys pre-sale ICOs, “basically getting a discount to the ICO price by getting in early, when it’s just a team and a white paper.” Meanwhile, Morehead had added, “We help provide the right connections, whether in terms of marketing or recruiting or business development.

The vehicle is evergreen, says Veradittakit, meaning it has an indefinite fund life that lets investors come and go.

The other two other funds that Pantera currently oversees are also structured like hedge funds. One is a Bitcoin fund that has attracted plenty of investors over the years, and returned a lot to them, too, according to the calculations of Morehead. In fact, he wrote two weeks ago that the fund, launched five years ago, has enjoyed a lifetime return of 10,136.15 percent net of fees and expenses.

The very last fund invests in cryptocurrencies that are already trading on exchanges — an approach that includes machine learning to algorithmically invest in crypotcurrencies, as well as allows for some discretionary input by Pantera’s top brass, which includes Morehead, Veradittakit, and Joey Krug, who joined Pantera last year after cofounding the market forecasting startup Augur. (It went on to orchestrate the first ICO on the ethereum network.)

Explains Veradittakit of this last pool, it’s for “if you are’t sure that Bitcoin will remain the dominant cryptocurrency, or you’re interested in other use cases that may arise, or you just want to build a diversified portfolio of assets that have asymmetrical returns as bitcoin, or maybe return even more because they feature lower valuations.”

In some ways, the venture efforts of Pantera —   which employs 38 people altogether in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Ca. —  may be its most challenging given the nature of VC. Investors in the asset class are typically willing to wait a handful of years for a firm to produce returns; in Pantera’s case, because it is betting exclusively on ventures, tokens, and projects related to blockchain tech, digital currency, and crypto assets, some of those returns could potentially take even longer.

Veradittakit doesn’t sound concerned. Rattling off some of Pantera’s venture investments to date, including in BitStamp, Xapo, Ripple, and Circle, not to mention more recent investments in Chain, Abra, Veem Polychain, and Z Cash, he sounds more like a proud parent. Pantera has invested in “lots of wallets and exchanges focused around the world, in Coinbases of different geographies, in enterprise-related blockchain companies. More recently, we’ve funded everything from big data to decentralized application platforms.”

It’s still very early days, he acknowledges. But “in terms of returns, there will be companies that create something completely disruptive. There will be M&A [opportunities] more often and that [come together] more quickly than other companies.”

If everything goes as planned, Pantera will be there when they do, and it will have more resources to deploy than ever.

Twitter puts Infowars’ Alex Jones in the ‘read-only’ sin bin for 7 days

Twitter has finally taken action against Infowars creator Alex Jones, but it isn’t what you might think.

While Apple, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Spotify and many others have removed Jones and his conspiracy-peddling organization Infowars from their platforms, Twitter has remained unmoved with its claim that Jones hasn’t violated rules on its platform.

That was helped in no small way by the mysterious removal of some tweets last week, but now Jones has been found to have violated Twitter’s rules, as CNET first noted.

Twitter is punishing Jones for a tweet that violates its community standards but it isn’t locking him out forever. Instead, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that Jones’ account is in “read-only mode” for up to seven days.

That means he will still be able to use the service and look up content via his account, but he’ll be unable to engage with it. That means no tweets, likes, retweets, comments, etc. He’s also been ordered to delete the offending tweet — more on that below — in order to qualify for a fully functioning account again.

That restoration doesn’t happen immediately, though. Twitter policy states that the read-only sin bin can last for up to seven days “depending on the nature of the violation.” We’re imagining Jones got the full one-week penalty, but we’re waiting on Twitter to confirm that.

The offending tweet in question is a link to a story claiming President “Trump must take action against web censorship.” It looks like the tweet has already been deleted, but not before Twitter judged that it violates its policy on abuse:

Abuse: You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.

When you consider the things Infowars and Jones have said or written — 9/11 conspiracies, harassment of Sandy Hook victim families and more — the content in question seems fairly innocuous. Indeed, you could look at President Trump’s tweets and find seemingly more punishable content without much difficulty.

But here we are.

The weirdest part of this Twitter caning is one of the reference points that the company gave to media. These days, it is common for the company to point reporters to specific tweets that it believes encapsulate its position on an issue, or provide additional color in certain situations.

In this case, Twitter pointed us — and presumably other reporters — to this tweet from Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson:

Alex Jones has been suspended by Twitter for 7 days for a video talking about social media censorship. Truly, monumentally, beyond stupid. 😄

On the same day that the Infowars website was brought down by a cyber attack.

Will this madness ever end? pic.twitter.com/hXDzH2b7rT

— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) August 14, 2018

WTF, Twitter…

Tim Draper has a song about Bitcoin for you

Down in the dumps while the cryptos are getting rekt? Quirky billionaire and long-time Bitcoin bull Tim Draper is here for you with what is apparently called a rap song.

The song you have all been waiting for by Kelley James and me #bitcoin #bitcoinhustle. Free to share. #freedom https://t.co/VbPM5iM7yh https://t.co/VbPM5iM7yh

— Tim Draper (@TimDraper) August 9, 2018

Draper performed a version of this thing at The Next Web’s event earlier this year… yes, I had to listen to both. Anyhow, we wish it had ended there. It didn’t.

[Blame @drew for making us aware of this]

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Voatz: a tale of a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea

Let’s get the fish in the barrel out of the way. Voatz are a tech startup whose bright idea was to disrupt democracy by having people vote on their phone, and store the votes on, you guessed it, a blockchain. Does this sound like a bad idea? Welp.

It turned out that they seemed awfully casual about basic principles of software security, such as not hard-coding your AWS credentials. It turned out that their blockchain was an eight-node Hyperledger install, i.e. one phenomenologically not especially distinguishable from databases secured by passwords. They have been widely and justly chastised for these things. But they aren’t what’s important.

To their credit, their system is opt-in, and apparently generates real-time voter-verified paper ballots, the single most important thing about any voting system. But still. We need to step back and ask a question here: why are we trying to vote via an app and collate election results on any kind of centralized system at all? We don’t want to make voting more efficient. Efficiency is not the problem we are trying to solve with elections. The inefficiency of paper ballots and their handling and collation and tabulation is a feature, not a bug.

Just ask everyone at Def Con’s Vote Hacking Village, whose successes have been rampant this weekend, in the midst of the enmity of the National Association of Secretaries of State:

ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE US OR YOUR OWN LYING EYES?! https://t.co/SOVL4Jb0dU

— TProphet (@TProphet) August 9, 2018

Voatz were approaching the wrong problem in the wrong way from the start. Even if your blockchain repository is verifiably write-once, which it isn’t, it only records the data sent to it via your app and servers. Voting cannot rely on apps and servers, no matter how allegedly secure they are claimed to be. It’s nice that you generate paper ballots for a post-election audit, but since we should not and cannot ever trust voting servers and software, and therefore will need to do a post-election paper ballot count every time — how about we skip the man-in-the-middle, and all of your software, and go straight to that part?

The other point is brought to us by XKCD, who responded to Voatz with this:

which in turn brought this response from Facebook’s (soon-to-be-former) CISO Alex Stamos:

I agree with Chris.

This is the kind of thinking that leads to “Why can’t we just have building codes for software? It worked to protect against earthquakes and fire!”

Earthquakes and fire aren’t conscious adversaries. Try writing a standards document on how to win at chess. https://t.co/eAPk6M3ijN

— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) August 8, 2018

which in turn brought this response from CFI and engineer Rob Russell, which a lot of the finest engineers I know have been sharing across social media:

This is wildly disingenuous, I speak as a flight instructor and major IT incident investigator. Modern software authors have the professional discipline of a cute puppy in comparison to aviation practitioners. https://t.co/6GzCqLNpcl

— Rob Russell (@www_ora_tion_ca) August 9, 2018

There are valid points on all sides here. Stamos is right that most spheres, e.g. aviation, don’t have to deal with the constant threat of intelligent adversaries attacking the system in the same way that software does (although as they events at SeaTac yesterday show us, they are by no means devoid of such threats.)

But Russell brings up the very valid point that because software people are so fixated on adversaries, on hackers and not being hacked, their definition of “security” is often restricted to breaches and exploits and vulnerabilities, rather than systemic flaws, or sloppy development techniques, which hurt users’ security even if no external hacker is involved. In fairness, over the last few years the infosec community has been good at broadening its definition of “secure” beyond “external hacker resistant” … but it seems pretty apparent that much, much more work is needed.

Facebook is the recruiting tool of choice for far-right group the Proud Boys

Twitter may have suspended the Proud Boys and their controversial leader Gavin McInnes, but it was never their platform of choice.

The Proud Boys, a self described “Western chauvinist” organization that often flirts with more hard-line groups of the far right, runs an elaborate network of recruiting pages on Facebook to attract and initiate members. While McInnes maintained a presence on many platforms, Facebook is the heart of the group’s operations. It’s there that the Proud Boys boast more than 35 regional and city-specific groups that act as landing pages for vetting thousands of new members and feeding them into local chapters.

When it comes to skirting the outer boundaries of social acceptability, McInnes could teach a master class. The Vice founder and Canadian citizen launched his newest project in 2016, capturing a groundswell of public political activity on the far right and launching the Proud Boys, a men’s club allied around the mantra “West is best,” its dedication to Trump and a prohibition against flip-flops and porn.

Facebook recruiting

The group makes national headlines for its involvement in violent dust-ups between the far right and far left and has a robust recruitment network centered on initiating members through Facebook groups. As for where it fits into the far right’s many sub-factions, McInnes objects to the term alt-light, sometimes used to describe far right group that oppose some mainstream conservative ideals but don’t openly endorse white nationalism. “Alt Light is a gay term that sounds like a diet soda in bed w Alt Right,” he said on Twitter last year. “We’re “The New Right.”

To that end, most regional affiliate pages run a message outlining some ground rules, including a declaration that its members not be racist or homophobic — a useful disclaimer for making the group more palatable than many of its less clever peers.

The Proud Boys’ agenda is less explicitly race-based than many groups it has affiliations with, espousing instead a broad sort of antagonism to perceived enemies on the political left and a credo of “western chauvinism.” The language is cleaned up, but it’s one degree removed from less palatable figures, including Unite the Right leader Jason Kessler. McInnes hosted Kessler on his own talk show just days after Kessler led the Charlottesville rally that left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead. In the segment, McInnes tried to create space between Kessler and the Proud Boys, though it wasn’t Kessler’s first time on the show or his only affiliation with the Proud Boys.

The Proud Boys also coordinates with the Vancouver, Washington-based group known as Patriot Prayer, another fairly social media-savvy far right organization that doesn’t openly endorse explicitly white nationalist groups, but still welcomes them into the fold during demonstrations that often turn violent.

Who are the Proud Boys?

Like much of the young, internet-fluent alt-right, the Proud Boys intentionally don’t take themselves too seriously, a strategy that conveniently opens the door for them to denounce any kind of controversy that might arise. They show up to protests wearing black and gold Fred Perry polo shirts, have a whole charter’s worth of inside jokes and in general seem a bit more media and internet savvy than hardline white nationalist groups, some of which Facebook has managed to clear out in the last year.

Unlike some less strategic and internet-savvy portions of the far right, McInnes and his Proud Boys are careful not to openly encourage preemptive violence. Still, the Proud Boys do encourage retaliatory violence, going so far as to enshrine physical altercations in its organizational hierarchy.

To earn their “first degree,” Proud Boys must openly declare their allegiance to the group’s ideals, usually in a Facebook vetting group.

To earn the second, they have to get beaten up by other members while naming five breakfast cereals (maybe a loose tie-in to the group’s mantra against masturbation). To earn the third degree they have to get a Proud Boys tattoo. The fourth degree is reserved for members who get in a brawl sufficient for the honor:

“You can’t plan getting a fourth degree. Its a consolation prize for engaging in a major conflict for the cause. Being arrested is not encouraged, although those who are immediately become fourth degree because the court has registered a major conflict. Serious physical fights also count and it’s up to each chapter to decide how serious the conflict must be to determine a fourth degree.”

That’s where the Proud Boys Facebook network comes in. To get accepted into a local chapter, prospective members join specific vetting groups and are asked to upload a video of them meeting their “first degree” requirements:

“Once you are added here, to be properly vetted you must upload and post a video of yourself reciting our First Degree. This is just a quick video of you saying EXACTLY THIS:

“My name is [full name], I’m from [city, state], and I am a western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” You can add anything else you’d like to your video, as long as you say those words exactly.

YouTube is full of first and second degree videos depicting the usually short half-ironic hazing ceremonies.

Facebook also hosts pages dedicated to the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, a new-ish subdivision of the Proud Boys and its paramilitary wing. The Alt-Knights, also known as FOAK, are led by Kyle Chapman, a.k.a. “Based Stickman,” a far right figure who grew to fame after beating political enemies with a stick at a 2017 Berkeley protest. The Alt-Knights aren’t always quite as careful to denounce violence.

Whether the Proud Boys are in violation of Facebook’s unevenly enforced and sometimes secretive policies or not, the organization is making the most of its time on the platform. Facebook has rules against organizing harm or credible violence that the Proud Boys’ brawling ethos and alt-knights would seem to run afoul of, but the group stands by the useful mantra “We don’t start fights, we finish them.”

TechCrunch reached out to the Proud Boys to get an idea of their membership numbers and will update this story if we receive a reply. An analysis of affiliated pages shows that Proud Boys groups have added hundreds of members in the last 30 days across many chapters.

With a second Unite the Right rally around the corner and the ugly reality of more real-life violence organized on social media looming large, platforms are on their toes for once. Facebook has cleaned up some of the rampant racism that stemmed from the extreme right presence on its platform, but savvier, self-censoring groups like the Proud Boys are likely to be the real headache as Facebook, Twitter and Google trudge through an endless minefield of case-by-case terms of service violations, drawing sharp criticism from both sides of the political spectrum no matter where they choose to place their feet.

Apple hints at plan to build a car after all as it rehires ex-Tesla engineering head

If you’re looking for hints that Apple might deliver on its long-rumored plan to develop its own car, a significant one landed this week after it emerged that Doug Field — Apple’s former VP of Mac hardware engineering — has rejoined from the company after a spell with Tesla.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball broke the news of Field returning to Apple following five years at Tesla where he oversaw the production of the Model 3.

Apple confirmed in a statement to TechCrunch that it has rehired Field, but it declined to give information about this role. Gruber reports, however, that Field will link up with Bob Mansfield, the former colleague he worked with on the Mac hardware business. Mansfield just so happens to be the person who is heading up Apple’s ‘Project Titan’ car project, having been tempted back and out of retirement, so there’s a lot to dig into.

There’s been plenty of speculation about the secretive Project Titan, most notably it was reported in 2016 that Apple had abandoned plans to develop a car. Instead, it was said to be focused on autonomous driving technology. While the project remains pretty opaque and tough to gauge, the hiring of the man who oversaw Tesla production — right after Apple poached a Waymo self-driving engineer — is a pretty interesting clue that suggests Apple might be reviving plans to develop a car once again.

Amazon launches grocery pickup at select Whole Foods

Amazon today is continuing to make good on its Whole Foods acquisition by introducing a new grocery pickup service at select Whole Foods locations in the U.S. The service, which is available only to Prime members, will initially be available at stores in Sacramento and Virginia Beach, but will expand to more cities through the year. Customers will be able to place their orders using Amazon’s Prime Now app or on the web via PrimeNow.com, then pick up in as little as 30 minutes, Amazon says.

Customers will be able to shop Whole Foods’ fresh and organic produce, bakery, dairy, meat and seafood, floral, and other staples, then pick up their order in an hour from their local Whole Foods Market.

This is the same selection of the thousands of items that customers can order for delivery. The majority of in-store items are available across both pickup and delivery services, we understand.

For orders over $35, the grocery pickup service is free. Under $35, the pickup fee is $1.99.

If customers want to get their order more quickly, they have the option of pay an additional $4.99 for a 30-minute pickup instead.

Once they arrive at the store, customers will park in a designated spot and a Prime Now shopper will then bring the groceries out to their car – the customer can stay in their vehicle. The Prime Now app also has a feature that lets the customer alert the store they’re on the way, so the order will be sure to be ready when they arrive.

The pickup service, like Whole Foods delivery, will be offered from 8 AM to 10 PM.

“Pickup from Whole Foods Market is a perfect option for customers who want to grab healthy and organic groceries at their convenience, all without leaving their car,” said Stephenie Landry, Worldwide Vice President of Prime Now, AmazonFresh and Amazon Restaurants, in a statement about the launch.

Amazon already offers grocery delivery from Whole Foods Market across dozens of cities, but this is the first time it has offered grocery pickup.

The move is a direct challenge to rival Walmart, which has been steadily rolling out a grocery pickup service of its own for years. Today, that service is available at 1,800 Walmart locations in the U.S., with plans to reach 2,200 by year-end, Walmart confirmed to us.

Walmart’s grocery pickup service offers shoppers the same general value proposition as Amazon’s. That is, you can shop online for your groceries, drive to the store, then have someone bring them out to you.  Walmart’s service has been especially well-received by parents with small children, who don’t like the hassle of bringing them into the store for grocery shopping, as well as by others who just don’t have a lot of time to grocery shop.

The service has made sense for Walmart’s more value-minded customers, too. With grocery pickup, shopping can be more affordable because there’s not the overhead of running a delivery service – as with Instacart and Target-owned Shipt, where it’s costlier to use the app than to shop yourself. (Plus, you have to tip).

In addition to not marking up the grocery prices, Amazon notes that Prime members can also receive the same 10 percent off sale items they would otherwise get if shopping in the store, and they’ll enjoy the deeper discounts on select items. These savings are available in-store, or when using grocery pickup or delivery.

Alongside this launch, Amazon is also adding a new way to use Alexa for voice shopping from Whole Foods.

Prime members in supported regions can add Whole Foods Market groceries to their Prime Now cart with simple voice commands. For example: “Alexa, add eggs to my Whole Foods cart.”

Alexa will pick the best available match for your request, considering users’ order history and purchasing behavior of other customers when it adds an item to the cart.

But customers will review these cart additions when they go online later to complete their order and checkout. It’s easy to swap the item in the cart for another one at that time.

A report released this week by The Information claimed that few Alexa owners were actively voice shopping using their Alexa devices, but this data seemed to overlook Alexa’s list-making capabilities. That is, people are more likely using Alexa to add items to an in-app shopping list, which they later revisit when they’re back on their phone or computer to complete the purchase. This behavior feels more natural, as shopping often requires a visual confirmation of the product being ordered and its current pricing.

It’s not surprising that people aren’t using Alexa to transact directly through the voice platform, but it is a bit far-fetched to claim that Alexa isn’t providing a lift to Amazon’s bottom line. In addition to list-making, Alexa also helps to upsell customers on Prime memberships, and its other subscription services, including Prime Music Unlimited, the number 3 music service behind Spotify and Apple Music, as well as Audible subscriptions.

Plus, Alexa controls the smart home, and Amazon has acquired smart home device makers and sells its own smart home hardware. It also offers installation services. Those sales, like music or audiobooks, also aren’t directly flowing through Alexa, but Alexa’s existence helps to boost them.

Amazon’s new Whole Foods/Alexa integration will also capitalize on the more common behavior of list-making, rather than direct check out and purchase.

Amazon declined to say which other markets would receive Whole Foods grocery pickup next, how many it expects to support by year-end, or what factors it’s considering as to where to roll out next. It would only say that it will reach more customers this year.

However, as the grocery pickup and delivery services expand, customers can find out if it’s arrived in their area by saying, “Alexa, shop Whole Foods Market.”

Watch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket take its first re-flight

SpaceX is sending of one of newest Falcon 9 rockets back into space for the second time this early morning U.S. time.

The Falcon 9 ‘Block 5’ rocket is designed to be able to go into space and return 100 times, but these are early days. The rocket leaving today is taking Indonesian satellite Merah Putih in what will be its second trip — a re-flight — into space. If all goes well and the SpaceX robotic drone successfully collects the rocket off the Florida coast as planned, then this particular vehicle will be the first Block 5 to manage a repeat lift-off following a previous trip in May.

The next major focus for the firm is to reduce the preparation time and cost required between the relaunch of rockets. Obviously, there’s plenty of benefits for faster turnaround time and the cost-savings associated. But first thing is first and the vehicle out today could become the first Falcon 9 to go into space three times.

The launch happened a few minutes ago, but you can keep up with progress via the SpaceX live feed above.

Apple has removed Infowars podcasts from iTunes

Apple has followed the lead of Google and Facebook after it removed Infowars, the conspiracy theorist organization helmed by Alex Jones, from its iTunes and podcasts apps.

Unlike Google and Facebook, which removed four Infowars videos on the basis that the content violated its policies, Apple’s action is wider-reaching. The company has withdrawn all episodes of five of Infowars’ six podcasts from its directory of content, leaving just one left, a show called ‘Real News With David Knight.’

The removals were first spotted on Twitter. Later, Apple confirmed it took action on account of the use of hate speech which violates its content guidelines.

“Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users. Podcasts that violate these guidelines are removed from our directory making them no longer searchable or available for download or streaming. We believe in representing a wide range of views, so long as people are respectful to those with differing opinions,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Apple’s action comes after fellow streaming services Spotify and Stitcher removed Infowars on account of its use of hate speech.

Jones has used Infowars, and by association the platforms of these media companies, to broadcast a range of conspiracy theories which have included claims 9/11 was an inside job and alternate theories to the San Bernardino shootings. In the case of another U.S. mass shooting, Sandy Hook, Jones and Infowars’ peddling of false information and hoax theories was so severe that some of the families of the deceased, who have been harassed online and faced death threats, have been forced to move multiple times. A group is suing Jones via a defamation suit.

Patrick Stewart is returning to the role of Jean-Luc Picard for a new Star Trek series

Did you ever think Patrick Stewart would return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard? Neither did he.

But he will! Sir Pat Stew himself just announced the news on Instagram, timed to line up with an on-stage announcement at the Star Trek Las Vegas 2018 convention:

I will always be very proud to have been a part of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but when we wrapped that final movie in the spring of 2002, I truly felt my time with Star Trek had run its natural course. It is, therefore, an unexpected but delightful surprise to find myself excited and invigorated to be returning to Jean-Luc Picard and to explore new dimensions within him. Seeking out new life for him, when I thought that life was over.

During these past years, it has been humbling to hear stories about how The Next Generation brought people comfort, saw them through difficult periods in their lives or how the example of Jean-Luc inspired so many to follow in his footsteps, pursuing science, exploration and leadership. I feel I’m ready to return to him for the same reason – to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine on these often very dark times. I look forward to working with our brilliant creative team as we endeavor to bring a fresh, unexpected and pertinent story to life once more.

The official account for the new (but separate) Star Trek Discovery series sheds light on a few more details: the story will focus on the “next chapter” of Picard’s life (after Next Generation, presumably), and will be made available on CBS’ online subscription/original content service, CBS All Access.

Make it so! @SirPatStew will be returning to his iconic role as Jean-Luc Picard in a new @cbsallaccess #StarTrek series that tells the story of the next chapter in Picard’s life‼pic.twitter.com/T5qQJ4gzU0

— Star Trek: Discovery (@startrekcbs) August 4, 2018

Stewart shared a few more details at the Las Vegas convention, noting that it was still early days and they’re still working out what it’ll all look like:

He may not… be a captain anymore. He may not be the Jean-Luc that you recognize and know so well. It may be a very different individual; someone who has been changed by his experiences. Twenty years will have passed — more or less exactly the time between the last movie (Nemesis) and today.

We have no scripts, as yet. We’re just talking, talking, talking storylines.

It will be, I promise, I guarantee, something very, very different. But it will come to you with the same passion, and determination, and love of the material, and love of our followers and fans… exactly as we had it before.

Alas, just about everything else about the show is still a mystery for now, presumably because it’s not all totally finalized yet. Name? Unknown. How many episodes? Who knows!

Maybe what the world needs right now is some Star Trek. Not the flashy, snappy JJ Abrams Trek — just good ol’ Picard out there getting his Prime Directive on.

Here’s Patrick Stewart’s surprise Star Trek convention visit in full, as uploaded by Jaime Bastidas (the announcement comes in at 9:20):

Facebook Dating will be a feature, not an app; here’s a peek

Facebook Dating doesn’t plan to launch a standalone dating app, which should temper expectations about how deeply it’s diving into Tinder and Match Group’s territory. The feature will be based inside Facebook’s main app, alongside its many other utilities buried beyond the home screen. It’s not ready for the public yet, but company employees are now internally testing it — though they’re warned that it’s not for dating their co-workers.

Facebook gave a preview of its Dating features back in May at its F8 conference. Now we’re getting an early look at its onboarding process thanks to screenshots pulled from the Facebook app’s code by mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. The designs give a sense of the more mature vibe of Facebook Dating, which seems more purposeful for finding a serious partner than a one-night stand.

Once you opt in to activating Facebook Dating, only other people who have also turned it on will be able to see you, and it won’t be shared to News Feed. You can choose if friends of friends can see you or not, and Dating profiles allow non-binary and transgender and orientation options. You’ll unlock Groups or Events you’re a part of for Dating, and you’ll be able to browse potential matches based on the plethora of info Facebook knows about you. If two people express interest in each other (no swiping), they can text each other over Messenger or WhatsApp.

TechCrunch has learned some new details from Facebook, as well. Facebook is considering a limit on how many people you can express interest in, which would prevent a spammy behavior of rapidly approving everyone you see. Blocking someone on Dating won’t also block them on Facebook, though that’s not finalized.

Facebook has no plan for paid subscriptions to premium Dating features. It’s currently not going to show ads in Dating, though it could reconsider that later.

Dating will be 18+ only in the U.S. and abide by local laws on who is considered an “adult.”

For now Facebook is taking careful steps toward Dating. It’s not blitzing into the market with a big flashy app. Instead it’s hoping the feature could create the meaningful relationships that make people appreciate Facebook and stick with it over the years. That’s more important than ever with all its recent troubles.

MallforAfrica goes global, Kobo360 and Sokowatch raise VC, France explains its $76M fund

Jake Bright
Contributor

Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa.

B2B e-commerce company Sokowatch closed a $2 million seed investment led by 4DX Ventures. Others to join the round were Village Global, Lynett Capital, Golden Palm Investments, and Outlierz  Ventures.

The Kenya based company aims to shake up the supply chain market for Africa’s informal retailers.

Sokowatch’s platform connects Africa’s informal retail stores directly to local and multi-national suppliers—such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble—by digitizing orders, delivery, and payments with the aim of reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

“With both manufacturers and the small shops, we’re becoming the connective layer between them, where previously you had multiple layers of middle-men from distributors, sub-distributors, to wholesalers,” Sokowatch founder and CEO Daniel Yu told TechCrunch.

“The cost of sourcing goods right now…we estimate we’re cutting that cost by about 20 percent [for] these shopkeepers,” he said

“There are millions of informal stores across Africa’s cities selling hundreds of billions worth of consumer goods every year,” said Yu.

These stores can use Sokowatch’s app on mobile phones to buy wares directly from large suppliers, arrange for transport, and make payments online. “Ordering on SMS or Android gets you free delivery of products to your store, on average, in about two hours,” said Yu.

Sokowatch generates revenues by earning “a margin on the goods that we’re selling to shopkeepers,” said Yu. On the supplier side, they also benefit from “aggregating demand…and getting bulk deals on the products that we distribute.”

The company recently launched a line of credit product to extend working capital loans to platform clients. With the $2 million round, Sokowatch—which currently operates in Kenya and Tanzania—plans to “expand to new markets in East Africa, as well as pilot additional value add services to the shops,” said Yu.

MallforAfrica and DHL launched MarketPlaceAfrica.com: a global e-commerce site for select African artisans to sell wares to buyers in any of DHL’s 220 delivery countries.

The site will prioritize fashion items — clothing, bags, jewelry, footwear and personal care — and crafts, such as pictures and carvings. MallforAfrica is vetting sellers for MarketPlace Africa online and through the Africa Made Product Standards association (AMPS), to verify made-in-Africa status and merchandise quality.

“We’re starting off in Nigeria and then we’ll open in Kenya, Rwanda and the rest of Africa, utilizing DHL’s massive network,” MallforAfrica CEO Chris Folayan told TechCrunch about where the goods will be sourced. “People all around the world can buy from African artisans online, that’s the goal,” Folayan told TechCrunch.

Current listed designer products include handbags from Chinwe Ezenwa and Tash women’s outfits by Tasha Goodwin.

In addition to DHL for shipping, MarketPlace Africa will utilize MallforAfrica’s e-commerce infrastructure. The startup was founded in 2011 to solve challenges global consumer goods companies face when entering Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron  href=”https://pctechmag.com/2018/05/french-president-emmanuel-macron-launches-a-usd76m-africa-startup-fund/”>unveiled a $76 million African startup fund at VivaTech 2018 and TechCrunch paid a visit to the French Development Agency (AFD) — who will administer the new fund — to get details on how it will work.

The $76 million (or €65 million) will divvy up into three parts, AFD Digital Task Team Leader Christine Ha told TechCrunch.

“There are €10 million [$11.7 million] for technical assistance to support the African ecosystem… €5 million will be available as interest-free loans to high-potential, pre-seed startups…and…€50 million [$58 million] will be for equity-based investments in series A to C startups,” explained Ha during a meeting in Paris.

The technical assistance will distribute in the form of grants to accelerators, hubs, incubators and coding programs. The pre-seed startup loans will issue in amounts up to $100,000 “as early, early funding to allow entrepreneurs to prototype, launch and experiment,” said Ha.

The $58 million in VC startup funding will be administered through Proparco, a development finance institution — or DFI — partially owned by the AFD. “Proparco will take equity stakes, and will be a limited partner when investing in VC funds,” said Ha.

Startups from all African countries can apply for a piece of the $58 million by contacting any of Proparco’s Africa offices.

The $11.7 million technical assistance and $5.8 million loan portions of France’s new fund will be available starting in 2019. On implementation, AFD is still “reviewing several options…such as relying on local actors through [France’s] Digital Africa platform,” said Ha. President Macron followed up the Africa fund announcement with a trip to Nigeria last month.

Nigerian logistics startup Kobo360 was accepted into Y Combinator’s 2018 class and gained some working capital in the form of $1.2 million in pre-seed funding led by Western Technology Investment.

The startup — with an Uber like app that connects Nigerian truckers to companies with freight needs — will use the funds to pay drivers online immediately after successful hauls.

Kobo360 is also launching the Kobo Wealth Investment Network, or KoboWIN — a crowd-invest, vehicle financing program. Through it, Kobo drivers can finance new trucks through citizen investors and pay them back directly (with interest) over a 60-month period.

On Kobo360’s utility, “We give drivers the demand and technology to power their businesses,” CEO Obi Ozor told TechCrunch. “An average trucker will make $3,500 a month with our app. That’s middle class territory in Nigeria.”

Kobo360 has served 324 businesses, aggregated a fleet of 5480 drivers and moved 37.6 million kilograms of cargo since 2017, per company stats. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, and DHL.

Ozor thinks the startup’s asset-free, digital platform and business model can outpace traditional long-haul 3PL providers in Nigeria by handling more volume at cheaper prices.

“Logistics in Nigeria have been priced based on the assumption drivers are going to run empty on the way back…When we now match freight with return trips, prices crash.”

Kobo360 will expand in Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Senegal.

[PHOTO: BFX.LAGOS] And finally, applications are open for TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield Africa, to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, December 11. Early-stage African startups have until September 3 to apply here.

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

More Africa Related Stories @TechCrunch

·         CowryWise micro-savings service opens high-yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians


African Tech Around the Net

·         More Than Half of Sub-Saharan Africa to Be Connected to Mobile by 2025, Finds New GSMA Study
·         Ethiopia’s Gebeya acquires Coders4Africa to accelerate its growth
·         Rwanda, Andela partner to launch pan-African tech hub in Kigali
·         Google’s free public Wi-Fi initiative expanded to Africa
·         Accounteer wins 2018 MEST Entrepreneur challenge
·         SafeBoda completes expansion to Kenya, now live in Nairobi
·         Uganda government sued over social media tax

Starbucks partners with Alibaba on coffee delivery to boost China business

Starbucks is palling up with Alibaba as it seeks to rediscover growth for its business in China.

China has been a bright spot for some time for the U.S. coffee giant, but lately it has struggled to maintain growth — its China business dragged on its Q3 financials — and it is up against some ambitious new rivals, including billion-dollar startup Luckin Coffee.

One-year-old Luckin recently raised $200 million from investors and it has already built quite a presence. It claims over 500 outlets across China and it taps into the country’s mobile trends, with mobile payments and orders and delivery, too. Then there are some deep discounts aimed at getting new users, as is common with food, cars and other on-demand services.

In response, Starbucks is injecting some of that ‘New Retail’ strategy into its own China presence — and it is doing so with none other than Alibaba, the company that coined the phrase, which signifies a marriage between online and offline commerce.

The partnership between Alibaba and Starbucks is wide-ranging and it will cover delivery, a virtual store and collaboration on Alibaba’s “new retail” Hema stores.

The delivery piece is perhaps most obvious, and it’ll see Starbucks work with Ele.me, the $9.5 billion food delivery platform owned by Alibaba, to allow customers to order and receive coffee without visiting a store. The service will start in September in Beijing and Shanghai, with plans to expand to 30 cities and over 2,000 stores by the end of this year.

Starbucks is also building its app into Alibaba’s array of e-commerce sites, including its Tmall brand e-mall and Taobao marketplace. That’s a move that Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson told CNBC would operate “similar to the mobile app embedded right into that experience” and open Starbucks up to Alibaba’s 500 million-plus users.

Finally, Starbucks is bringing its own “Starbucks Delivery Kitchens” to Alibaba’s Hema stores, which feature robots and mobile-based orders, that will combine Starbucks stores to boost its delivery capacity and speed.

Starbucks, as mentioned, needed a boost in China but the deal is also a major coup for Alibaba, which is battling JD.com on the new retail front as well as ambitious on-demand service Meituan. The latter is reported to have recently filed for an IPO in Hong Kong that could raise it $4 billion.