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Facebook Dating launches in Europe after 9-month+ delay over privacy concerns

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Facebook’s dating bolt-on to its eponymous social networking service has finally launched in Europe, more than nine months after an earlier launch plan was derailed at the last minute over privacy concerns.

From today, European Facebook users in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Latvia, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and the UK can opt into Facebook Dating by creating a profile at facebook.com/dating.

Among the dating product’s main features are the ability to share Stories on your profile; a Secret Crush feature that lets you select up to nine of your Facebook friends or Instagram followers who you’d like to date (without them knowing unless they also add you — triggering a match notification); the ability to see people with similar interests if you add your Facebook Events and Groups to your Dating profile; and a video chat feature called Virtual Dates.

Image credit: Facebook

Of course if you opt in to Facebook Dating you’re going to be plugging even more of your personal data into Facebook’s people profiling machine. And it was concerns about how the dating product would be processing European users’ information that led to a regulatory intervention by the company’s lead data regulator in the EU, the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC).

Back in February Facebook agreed to postpone the regional launch of Facebook Dating after the DPC’s agents paid a visit to its Dublin office — saying Facebook had not provided it with enough advanced warning of the product launch, nor adequate documentation about how it would work.

More than nine months later the regulator seems satisfied it now understands how Facebook Dating is processing people’s personal data — although it also says it will be monitoring the EU launch.

Additionally, the DPC says Facebook has made some changes to the product in light of concerns it raised (full details below).

Deputy commissioner, Graham Doyle, told TechCrunch: “As you will recall, the DPC became aware of Facebook’s plans to launch Facebook Dating a number of days prior to its planned launch in February of this year. Further to the action taken by the DPC at the time (which included an on-site inspection and a number of queries and concerns being put to Facebook), Facebook has provided detailed clarifications on the processing of personal data in the context of the Dating feature. Facebook has also provided details of changes that they have made to the product to take account of the issues raised by the DPC. We will continue to monitor the product as it launches across the EU this week.”

“Much earlier engagement on such projects is imperative going forward,” he added.

Since the launch of Facebook’s dating product in 20 countries around the world — including the US and a number of markets in Asia and LatAm — the company says more than 1.5 billion matches have been “created”.

In a press release about the European launch, Facebook writes that it has “built Dating with safety, security and privacy at the forefront”, adding: “We worked with experts in these areas to provide easy access to safety tips and build protections into Facebook Dating, including the ability to report and block anyone, as well as stopping people from sending photos, links, payments or videos in messages.”

It also links to an update about Facebook Dating’s privacy which emphasizes the product is an “opt-in experience”. This document includes a section explaining how use of the product impacts Facebook’s data collection and the ads users see across its suite of products.

“Facebook Dating may suggest matches for you based on your activities, preferences and information in Dating and other Facebook Products,” it writes. “We may also use your activity in Dating to personalize your experience, including ads you may see, across Facebook Products. The exception to this is your religious views and the gender(s) you are interested in dating, which will not be used to personalize your experience on other Facebook Products.”

One key privacy-related change flowing from the DPC intervention looks to be that Facebook has committed to excluding the use of Dating users’ religious and sexual orientation information for ad targeting purposes.

Under EU law this type of personal information is classed as ‘special category’ data — and consent to process it requires a higher bar of explicit consent from the user. (And Facebook probably didn’t want to harsh Dating users’ vibe with pop-ups asking them to agree to ads targeting them for being gay or Christian, for example.)

Asked about the product changes, the DPC confirmed a number of changes related to special category data, along with some additional clarifications.

Here’s its full list of “changes and clarifications” obtained from Facebook:

  • Changes to the user interface around a user’s selection of religious belief. Under the original proposal, the “prefer not to say” option was buried in the choices;
  • Updated sign-up flow within the Dating feature to bring to the user’s attention that Dating is a Facebook product and that it is covered by FB’s terms of service and data policy, as particularised by the Supplemental Facebook Dating Terms.
  • Clarification on the uses of special category data (no advertising using special category data and special category data collected in the dating feature will not be used by the core FB service);
  • Clarification that all other information will be used by Facebook in the normal manner across the Facebook platform in accordance with the FB terms of service;
  • Clarification on the processing of location data (location services has to be turned on for onboarding for safety and verification purpose but can then be turned off. Dating does not automatically update users’ Dating location in their Dating profile, even if the user chooses to have their location turned on for the wider Facebook service. Dating location does not use the user’s exact location, and is shown at a city level on the user’s Dating profile.).

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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The fragmentation of everything

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The rise of technonationalism. Diverging regulatory regimes. The spread of “walled gardens.” Polarization like nothing we’ve seen before. The confluence of several trends is poised to completely fragment our real and digital worlds. For companies, this raises a host of new risks, from cybersecurity threats to reputation risk—which, in turn, will require new responses and approaches.

The techonomic cold war

A “techonomic cold war” is already under way—an ongoing, often-invisible state of conflict at the intersection of technology and geopolitics.

Competition to dominate the next generation of technology infrastructure—such as electric vehicles, 5G networks, and quantum computing—is becoming increasingly heated. It’s a high-stakes contest and the countries setting the rules for these technologies could secure significant economic advantage, much as the United States benefited over several decades from pioneering the personal computer and the internet.

At the same time, populist and nationalist leaders have been ascendant in much of the world. These leaders have protectionist and interventionist instincts, and a willingness to buck established norms. It’s a combination which has resulted in the deployment of unconventional tools to favor domestic companies—not just tariffs and trade wars, but company bans and new forms of cyberattacks such as weaponized disinformation.

All of this is leading to the partitioning of both the real world (e.g., trade, labor mobility, and investment) and the digital world (e.g., tech platforms and standards). In this fragmented future, companies once used to operating on a global stage will instead find themselves restricted to operating within the spheres of influence of their home states. (For more, see “Techonomic Cold War” in EY’s Megatrends 2020 report and MIT Technology Review’s “Technonationalism” issue).

Regulators aren’t the only ones fragmenting the digital world. To a large extent, tech companies have been doing it themselves.

Divergent social contracts

Technology platforms are today’s basic infrastructure, increasingly inseparable from the economies and societies in which they exist. These platforms are increasingly where citizens get news, engage in political debate, network professionally, and more.

But while tech companies might seek to create seamless, integrated global platforms, they in fact deliver their offerings in vastly different societies. The social contract of the US is fundamentally different from that of China, Saudi Arabia, or even the European Union (EU). So, governments and regulators in different markets have been moving to recast tech platforms in the image of their social contracts. An early example was China, which developed its own platforms that better align with its social contract than do US-developed offerings.

Meanwhile, the EU has become increasingly active and visible in regulating technology. The most prominent recent example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is a precursor of things to come. The GDPR tackles privacy and data protection, but much bigger regulatory issues loom, from the explainability of algorithms to the safety of autonomous vehicles (for more, see EY’s Bridging AI’s trust gaps report). As these technologies come of age and become more prominent in the lives of citizens, expect governments in different regions to become more active in regulating them. Over time, increasingly complex regulatory issues and divergent ideologies will create either separate platforms, or platforms that ostensibly have the same name but deliver fundamentally different user experiences in different geographies.

Walled gardens

Regulators aren’t the only ones fragmenting the digital world. To a large extent, tech companies have been doing it themselves. Walled gardens—closed, self-contained tech platforms or ecosystems—have endured because they are good for the bottom line. They allow companies to extract more value from customers and their data while offering a more curated user experience. In recent months, there has been a growing fragmentation of “over-the-top” media streaming services, with individual studios and networks developing their own subscriber platforms. Instead of streaming platforms that hosted content from a wide variety of creators, platforms will offer exclusive access to their own content—fragmenting the streaming media experience.

Hyperpolarization

It’s no secret that political polarization has been growing at an alarming rate and that social media platforms—while not solely responsible—have been fueling the trend. Filter bubbles in social media platforms have enabled the spread of misinformation, leaving platforms with the tricky and unenviable task of policing the truth.

Worrying as it may be, everything we have seen so far may be nothing compared with what lies ahead. As social media platforms become more active in stemming the flow of misinformation, its purveyors are starting to seek new homes free from policing. In the weeks since the recent US Presidential election, a growing number of Trump voters have started leaving mainstream social media platforms for alternatives such as Parler and Telegram. By the time the next Presidential election rolls around, it’s not farfetched to anticipate that we could see today’s social media filter bubbles replaced by entirely separate social media platforms catering to conservatives and liberals.

At that point, we will have moved from an era of polarization to one of hyperpolarization. For anyone worried social media platforms are doing too little to curb misinformation, imagine how much worse things will be with platforms that don’t even try.

Risks and challenges

The techonomic cold war necessitates a new approach to cybersecurity. “Companies need to guard against not just malware and phishing attacks, but weaponized disinformation,” says Kris Lovejoy, EY’s global consulting cybersecurity leader. “We’ve seen disinformation used to attack elections, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be used to target companies. Most companies today do not have the safeguards and protections they will need in the next frontier of cybersecurity.”

A second challenge is lack of transparency. Commerce thrives on transparency, yet instruments such as company bans are opaque and seemingly arbitrary. To the extent these instruments undermine transparency, they create uncertainty for businesses.

The regional fragmentation of platforms by regulation and divergent social contracts increases the complexity of regulatory compliance and the risk of regulatory noncompliance. Beyond mere compliance, companies face significant brand and reputation risk if consumers perceive platforms to be misaligned with societal values.

A hyperpolarized future will create some of the most significant challenges of all. Losing the last tenuous bridges between our divergent echo chambers would threaten everything from social stability to the future of democracy and the very existence of a shared reality.

This content was produced by EY. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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Zephr raises $8M to help news publishers grow subscription revenue

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Zephr has raised $8 million in a new funding round led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments (owned by media giant Bertelsmann).

The London-headquarteed startup’s customers already include publishers like McClatchy, News Corp Australia, Dennis Publishing and PEI Media. CEO James Henderson told me via email that rather than creating “a monolithic product that tries to do a bit of everything,” Zephr is “focused entirely on the experience and journey for the prospect or customer,” driving an average 150% increase in conversion rates and 25% increase in subscription revenue within the first six months.

Henderson added, “By offering the right product, package or message at the right time to the right person, Zephr improves conversion rates, drastically decreases churn and drives new, stable revenue.”

To do this, Zephr largely relies on the publisher’s first-party data about its readers — Henderson said that this data is “by far the most important and powerful type of data that Zephr both uses and generates.” But it also takes advantage of contextual data, such as “time of day, to location, device or consumption patterns.”

He also noted that Zephr is a no-code tool, allowing non-technical members of the marketing, revenue and product teams to use a drag-and-drop editor to create different customer journeys.

Zephr

Image Credits: Zephr

Asked how the pandemic has affected the startup’s business, Henderson said that there were both “positive and negative indicators,” with newsrooms seeing record readership but in some cases also freezing spending.

“As firms prepare for a ‘post-pandemic’ world, we are beginning to see our markets seize the opportunity of all these new potential subscribers and invest in subscription models – and in Zephr.” he said. “In publishing and news media, the old model of dominant advertising revenue is on the way out and we are well-placed to capitalize on that interest.”

The new funding also includes financing from Silicon Valley Bank UK Branch and brings Zephr’s total funding to $11 million. Previous investors include Knight Capital and Nauta Capital. According to the company’s funding announcement, this money will go towards further product development (with a focus on increased personalization), as well as expansion across the United States, Europe and Asia.

“The recent weakness in the advertising market increased pressure for media companies to diversify revenue streams and aim to introduce or optimize subscription models,” said BDMI Managing Director Urs Crete in a statement. “We recognise Zephr’s excellent technology that empowers publishers to galvanise the online subscription opportunity and create customer journeys that are truly unique.”

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PrimaHealth Credit offers a buy-now, pay-later lending service for elective procedures

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The Newport Beach, Calif.-based healthcare lending service PrimaHealth Credit  is now pitching point-of-sale lending services for elective medical procedures.

Taking the kinds of financial lending services that have been popularized by companies like Klarna and Affirm, PrimaHealth Credit is bringing them into elective surgical space for things like cataract surgery, orthodontic work, dental care, or LASIK.

“For many dental, orthodontics, LASIK, and cataract surgery patients, our BNPL product is a ‘last resort’ – the difference between getting the treatment they need, or not,” said Brendon Kensel, founder and CEO of PrimaHealth Credit, in a statement.

The company expects that patients will pay somewhere between 25% and 50% of the cost of their treatment up front with repayment durations for the loans ranging between two and four months.

Rates for the loans will range from 19.99% to 24.99% APR with average loan sizes coming in at around $1,800 across dental, orthodontics, and LASIK, according to the company.

“Until now, when providers couldn’t approve patients for an existing payment plan, they’d either forego providing them care or take them on anyway, exposing themselves to significant liability as they struggle with adequately assessing creditworthiness and properly servicing and collecting loans,” Kensel said.

The program not only handles loan origination for healthcare practices, but handles the back-office tasks for payment and servicing.

“Our goal as a company is to remove barriers to patient acceptance and help people who have the means but not necessarily the credit score to get the quality care that everyone deserves,” Kensel said.

Using the PrimaHealth Credit mobile app, patients can receive instant credit decisions and choose the payment plan that works best for them. The company said the service is currently available in Arizona, California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas and will be expanded to all 50 states by 2021.

 

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