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FTC settles with mobile ad company Tapjoy over deceptive practices

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Mobile advertising company Tapjoy has settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it was misleading consumers about the in-app rewards they could earn in mobile games. According to the FTC, Tapjoy deceived consumers who participated in various activities — like purchasing a product, signing up for a free trial, providing their personal information like an email address, or completing a survey — in exchange for in-game virtual currency. But when it was time to pay up, Tapjoy’s partners didn’t deliver.

As a result of the ruling, Tapjoy will have to clean up its business by monitoring the offers from advertisers presented to consumers and conspicuously display the terms that explain how rewards are earned. It will also be required to follow through to ensure the offers are delivered and investigate consumer complaints if they are not. Failure to follow the terms of the settlement will result in further fines of up to $43,280 per each violation, the FTC says.

Tapjoy’s business model has been to serve as an intermediary between advertisers, gamers and game developers. The mobile game developers integrate its technology to display the ads — aka “offers” — to their own customers, in order to earn payments for their users’ activity. When the consumer completes the offer by taking whatever action was required, they’re supposed to earn in-game coins or other virtual currency. The app developers then earn a percentage of that ad revenue.

But that often wasn’t happening, the FTC said. Players would jump through hoops, even sometimes spending money and turning over their sensitive data, only to get nothing in return.

What’s more, it said Tapjoy was aware its partners were cheating these consumers and did take action, even when “hundreds of thousands” of consumers filed complaints. This also harmed the game developers, who were cheated out of the promised ad revenues they would have otherwise earned.

“Tapjoy promised gamers in-app rewards for completing advertising offers made by its partners, but then often didn’t deliver,” said Frank Gorman, Acting Deputy Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “When companies like Tapjoy make promises that depend on their partners’ performance, they’re on the hook to make sure those promises are kept.”

The FTC said Tapjoy’s conduct violated both the FTC Act’s prohibition on unfair business practices as well as the prohibition on deceptive practices. It will now have to actively work to weed out the fraud in its industry, otherwise Tapjoy itself will be held accountable.

App platforms like Apple and Google have struggled with shady ad businesses for years, which target their own customers.

More recently, Apple implemented a policy that requires developers to disclose on its app store listing what sort of information the app collects from customers and how that data is used to track users. This policy also wraps in whatever third-party ad technology may be integrated into the app.

The move is a not-so-subtle push to get developers to stop working with bad actors (like Tapjoy, allegedly) in order monetize their apps and games, and instead turn to a business model where Apple profits: subscriptions. Apple, brilliantly, has positioned this as a fight for consumer privacy and not for consumer dollars.

What’s interesting about this FTC ruling is that it lays the fault for Tapjoy and others like it directly at the platforms’ feet.

Commissioners Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, in a joint statement, described Tapjoy as “a minnow next to the gatekeeping giants of the mobile gaming industry, Apple and Google.”

“By controlling the dominant app stores, these firms enjoy vast power to impose taxes and regulations on the mobile gaming industry, which was generating nearly $70 billion annually even before the pandemic. We should all be concerned that gatekeepers can harm developers and squelch innovation,” the statement reads. “The clearest example is rent extraction: Apple and Google charge mobile app developers on their platforms up to 30% of sales, and even bar developers from trying to avoid this tax through offering alternative payment systems,” they said.

The Commissioners noted, too, that “larger gaming companies” are pursuing legal action against these practices — a reference to Epic Games’ Fortnite lawsuit against Apple over the App Store commissions. But it said smaller developers fear retaliation for speaking up, as it could end up destroying their business if they were to be banned from the app stores.

In other words, the FTC blames the app store business model itself for leading developers to turn to companies like Tapjoy to sustain themselves.

“This market structure also has cascading effects on gamers and consumers. Under heavy taxation by Apple and Google, developers have been forced to adopt alternative monetization models that rely on surveillance, manipulation, and other harmful practices,” the statement reads.

This is not the first FTC action that has resulted from the fallout of the modern app store business model. Last year, the FTC went after kids’ app developer HyperBeard for its use of third-party ad trackers that were used to serve behavioral advertising, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Apple is being given a lot of credit in recent weeks for its privacy push, with the launch of its so-called app store “nutrition labels” that help to better highlight the bad actors in the mobile app market. But some of the recent reporting has lacked balance.

Many reports neglect to explain why these alternative business models rose in the first place. The also often don’t detail how Apple will financially benefit from the shift to subscriptions that will result from this mobile ad clampdown. Plus, it’s rarely noted that Apple itself serves behavioral advertising within its own apps which is based on the user data it collects from across its catalog of first-party apps and services. That’s not to say that Apple isn’t doing a service with its privacy push, but it’s a complex matter — this isn’t sports. You don’t have to pick one side or the other.

The Commissioners in their joint statement also hinted that regulation will soon come to the app platform providers, Apple and Google as well, not just mobile ad middlemen like Tapjoy.

“…when it comes to addressing the deeper structural problems in this marketplace that threaten both gamers and developers, the Commission will need to use all of its tools – competition, consumer protection, and data protection – to combat middlemen mischief, including by the largest gaming gatekeepers,” they said.

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

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

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“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

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At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

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