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You’ll never believe what this email thread says about the ad-funded ‘open’ web

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Among a number of claims on U.K. adtech lobby group MOW’s website is the canonical biggie that “Advertising funds the open web.”

This coalition of “marketers,” whose members are not being made public despite its sweeping claims to love web openness — lest, MOW says, Google rain down punishment upon its ranks of “top companies from across the globe” — recently complained to the U.K.’s competition regulator about the tech giant’s plan to end support for tracking cookies.

If you didn’t already guess it the “OW” in MOW’s acronym stands for “Open Web.” Aka (unknown) Marketers for an Open Web.

And today the CMA duly announced it is investigating Mountain View’s “Privacy Sandbox.” Though, as yet, no conclusions have been reached on whether Google’s plan threatens competition.

In truth, a variety of business models support open access to information on the internet.

Wikipedia, for example — surely the canonical example of the open web — relies upon reader donations to keep the lights on as a not-for-profit.

While — on the “exclusive access” side — crowdfunding sites like Patreon and the subscription platform Substack offer tools for creators to solicit regular monetary subscriptions from fans and backers to unlock gated content.

But it’s instructive to note how many online publishers have shifted, year over year, from free (ad-supported) access to content to selling subscriptions for (paywalled) content, often in addition to running ads.

Whether it’s the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Telegraph or Business Insider, the list of pay-to-access news sites keeps getting longer. Much like the consent flows that (also) pop up asking to process visitors’ information in order to target them with ads.

TechCrunch joined the ranks of subscription publications almost two years ago when we launched Extra Crunch. The main TC site continues to be free to access supported by ads and our events business. (NB: In 2021 our events are going fully virtual — which means, as a brief, bonus aside, they’ve never been so open and accessible!)

So how come all these paywalls are being thrown up if advertising funds the open web, as MOW claims?

The concise answer is that digital advertising pays publishers so poorly it can’t support producing quality content at the required scale on its own — thanks to myriad adtech intermediaries, click fraud and the big two: Google and Facebook; aka, the adtech duopoly, who take the lion’s share of revenue generated by digital advertising. 

“We have found that intermediaries (the largest of which is Google) capture at least 35% of the value of advertising bought from newspapers and other content providers in the U.K.,” the CMA reported last summer, in a major market study.

Consumers turning to ad blockers to escape creepy ads and prevent privacy-hostile trackers from keeping real-time tabs on their digital activity and systematically passing this intel to scores of unknowns in an ad auction process that the U.K.’s own data protection regulator has said isn’t very lawful, is another relevant factor here.

Online advertising certainly funds something. But is that something the open web? That looks rather debatable at this point.

I bring all this up merely to provide context for a chance detail in the MOW story that I want to share — as it illustrates some of the issues in this high stakes tug-of-war between publishers, digital marketing and adtech players and a handful of big (ad)tech versus the poor, frustrated eyeballs of the average internet user.

It’s an important power struggle.

One which threatens to keep steamrollering internet users’ right to protect their personal information from exploitation (and wider security-related risks) by, in the latest twist, co-opting competition regulators to erect barriers to pro-privacy reform. Assuming, that is, the CMA ends up naively swallowing dubious claims about what advertising does for the “open” internet — when evidence of what it actually does is but a click and a paywall/tortuously long consent to “share” your private data with hundreds of unknown firms away.

The regulator’s announcement today suggests it’s alive to the dysfunction surrounding internet users’ privacy and will take more than a superficial look at that issue — though if the ICO is the main rep in the room batting for users’ interests here that’s suboptimal, to say the least, given the latter’s storied reluctance to enforce the actual law against adtech.

But here’s the tidbit — which comes by way of a PR agency working for MOW. Earlier today it CC’d me into an email thread in which several staffers had been discussing monitoring the CMA news on behalf of its client.

I’m not naming the agency or any of the individuals involved to spare their blushes but in the thread — which begins with “FYI — The CMA are just about to announce a formal investigation into Google. We’ve drafted a comment which we will be circulating shortly” — staff can be seen asking to share logins to a number of newspaper websites and/or start a free trial in order to access newspaper copy for free, i.e., without having to pay for new subscriptions. 

“Do we have an FT login? If so, could you get hte [sic] story they’ve just written on MOW off for me?” asks one staffer.

Shortly afterward there’s a discussion about starting a free trial on the Telegraph’s website as they talk about collating relevant coverage into a single document to be able to monitor developments for MOW.

One staffer chips in to warn “you need to put credit card details in to start a trial” — before suggesting the other has a go “to see if you find a way around it.”

This person follows up by saying they’ll “let you know if I manage to find a way around it.”

So, mmm, irony much?

Redacted screengrab showing part of an email thread in which MOW’s PR agency discusses how to access newspaper sites to access copy to collate coverage on behalf of their client. Image Credits: TechCrunch.

In light of MOW’s advocacy for a “vibrant” ad-supported open web — which its website implies is aligned with the interests of publishers, marketers and adtech providers alike, i.e., not just with opaque adtech interests — it seems pretty relevant that an agency working for the industry group is uninterested, to put it politely, in paying for relevant newspaper content while being paid to lobby on adtech’s behalf.

On its website MOW argues that letting Google switch off third-party tracking cookies will be bad news for publishers because it says it will cut off marketers’ ability to measure ad campaign performance across different sites — claiming that will result in less effective ads that yield a lower return and thus less cash remitted by marketers to publishers.

However the CMA’s recent deep dive study of the digital marketing sector found an industry so opaque and riddled with black box algorithms that the regulator listed “lack of transparency” itself as a competition concern.

“Platforms with market power have the incentive and ability to increase prices, for example, or to overstate the quality and effectiveness of their advertising inventory,” it warned in the report. “They can take steps to reduce the degree of transparency in digital advertising markets, reducing other publishers’ ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of their advertising and forcing advertisers to rely on information and metrics provided by those platforms. And the lack of transparency undermines the ability of market participants to make the informed decisions necessary to drive competition. The upshot of all of these issues is that competition is weakened and trust in the market is eroded.”

Given that overarching assessment, who would take an opaque coalition of marketers’ word for it that current-gen cookie tracking of the entire internet yields irreplaceably valuable performance metrics?

Or that such privacy-hostile tracking is the only viable way to support a “vibrant open web”?

“The lack of transparency is particularly severe in the open display market where publishers and advertisers rely on intermediaries to manage the process of real-time bidding and ad serving but cannot observe directly what the intermediaries are doing or, in some cases, how much they are being charged,” the CMA goes on, sharpening its concerns about the extent of the obfuscation that cloaks the practices of adtech middlemen. “Market participants such as newspapers and advertisers typically do not have visibility of the fees charged along the entire supply chain and this limits their ability to make optimal choices on how to buy or to sell inventory, reducing competition among intermediaries.”

One thing is clear: The adtech industry needs a whole lot of disinfecting sunlight to be shone in. And that clarification process will surely demand substantial reform.

Refusing to change how things are done by claiming there’s simply no other way to preserve the web “as we know it” is as ridiculous an idea as it is anti-innovation in sentiment.

Returning to the misfired email thread, we contacted MOW’s PR agency to ask whether or not the account includes expenses for relevant newspaper subscriptions. It told us these would come out of a central agency fund. Additionally — having checked back on it — the agency said it did in fact have subscriptions to the newspaper sites in question.

The spokesperson explained that the staffers involved just hadn’t realized at the time — in the heat of the “day-to-day PR” moment (and whilst wrangling remote-working-impacted comms). And, presumably, as all those subscription login screens threw up barriers to accessing the content they needed in the heat of the moment.

This (senior) spokesperson blamed themselves for what they described as a “cock up” — including the soliciting of a “paywall workaround” — going on to take full mea culpa responsibility and emphasizing it had nothing to do with MOW or with the MOW account.

But, well, if an agency working for an adtech lobby group whose key claim is that “ads support the open internet” is unable to access the online content they need to do their job without a subscription, what does that tell us about how much of an open internet the advertising industry is actually funding right now?

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: A huge fintech exit as the week ends

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PDT, subscribe here.

Our thanks to everyone who wrote in this week about the format changes to the newsletter! Feedback largely sorted into two themes: Some people really like the more narrative format, and some folks really want a more link-list styled missive. What follows is an attempt to balance both perspectives.

Starting today we’ll bold company names, so that you can more quickly pick out startups, add more bulleted points to sections, and, per a different piece of feedback, include more regular descriptors of companies that are not household names.

That said, we’re not going to abandon chatting with you every day, as TechCrunch is nothing if not full of things to say. So here’s a blend of what the new, updated Daily Crunch team had in mind, and your notes. A big thanks to everyone who wrote in!

Alex @alex on Twitter

A mega-exit for American fintech

The news that public fintech company Bill.com will buy Divvy, a Utah-based startup that helps small and midsized businesses manage their spend, was perhaps the biggest startup story of the week. Breaking late Thursday, the $2.5 billion transaction was long expected. Divvy had raised more than $400 million from PayPal Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Insight Partners and Pelion Venture Partners.

TechCrunch covered the impending sale, rumors of which sprung up before Bill.com reported its Q1 earnings. To see the company drop the news at the same time as its earnings was not a surprise. For the burgeoning corporate payment space (more here on startups in the space like Ramp, Airbase and Brex).

I got to noodle on the financial results that Bill.com detailed regarding Divvy — they are pretty key metrics to help us value the startups that are competing to go public or find a similarly feathered corporate nest. In short, the corporate spend startup cohort is doing great. It’s even spawning new startups like Latin American-focused Clara, which raised $3.5 million earlier this year.

Broadly, the fintech market had a huge Q1 and is blasting its way toward a record venture capital year, like AI startups and the rest of the VC world.

Startups and venture capital

5 investors discuss the future of RPA after UiPath’s IPO

Much ink (erm, pixels) has been spilled about robotic process automation (RPA) recently, particularly in the wake of UiPath’s IPO last month.

But while some of the individuals Ron interviewed about the future of RPA believe the technology is in its “early infancy,” the pandemic increased attention toward things we can let robots handle for us. And it’s hard to argue that repetitive tasks like billing and spreadsheeting and paper-pushing should not be outsourced to robots.

“RPA allows companies to automate a group of highly mundane tasks and have a machine do the work instead of a human,” Ron writes. “Think of finding an invoice amount in an email, placing the figure in a spreadsheet and sending a Slack message to accounts payable. You could have humans do that, or you could do it more quickly and efficiently with a machine. We’re talking mind-numbing work that is well suited to automation.”

Although RPA is the fastest-growing category in enterprise software, the market remains surprisingly small. Ron spoke to five investors about where the sector is headed, where there are opportunities and the biggest threats to the RPA startup ecosystem.

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

The tech giants

It was a quieter day from the tech giants, who made plenty of news earlier in the week. The good news is that their relative calm means we can take a look at news from other Big Tech companies, those that don’t quite crack the $1 trillion market cap threshold yet:

Community

Some of us are mourning the shutdown of Nuzzel, so we asked … would you pay for it (and why)? Let us know what you think!

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Tesla refutes Elon Musk’s timeline on ‘full self-driving’

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What Tesla CEO Elon Musk says publicly about the company’s progress on a fully autonomous driving system doesn’t match up with “engineering reality,” according to a memo that summarizes a meeting between California regulators and employees at the automaker.

The memo, which transparency site Plainsite obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequently released, shows that Musk has inflated the capabilities of the Autopilot advanced driver assistance system in Tesla vehicles, as well the company’s ability to deliver fully autonomous features by the end of the year. 

Tesla vehicles come standard with a driver assistance system branded as Autopilot. For an additional $10,000, owners can buy “full self-driving,” or FSD — a feature that Musk promises will one day deliver full autonomous driving capabilities. FSD, which has steadily increased in price and capability, has been available as an option for years. However, Tesla vehicles are not self-driving. FSD includes the parking feature Summon as well as Navigate on Autopilot, an active guidance system that navigates a car from a highway on-ramp to off-ramp, including interchanges and making lane changes. Once drivers enter a destination into the navigation system, they can enable “Navigate on Autopilot” for that trip.

Tesla vehicles are far from reaching that level of autonomy, a fact confirmed by statements made by the company’s director of Autopilot software CJ Moore to California regulators, the memo shows.

“Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ,” according to the memo summarizing the conversation between regulators with the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ autonomous vehicles branch and four Tesla employees, including Moore.

The memo, which was written by California DMV’s Miguel Acosta, states that Moore described Autopilot — and the new features being tested — as a Level 2 system. That description matters in the world of automated driving.

There are five levels of automation under standards created by SAE International. Level 2 means two primary functions — like adaptive cruise and lane keeping — are automated and still have a human driver in the loop at all times. Level 2 is an advanced driver assistance system, and has become increasingly available in new vehicles, including those produced by Tesla, GM, Volvo and Mercedes. Tesla’s Autopilot and its more capable FSD were considered the most advanced systems available to consumers. However, other automakers have started to catch up.

Level 4 means the vehicle can handle all aspects of driving in certain conditions without human intervention and is what companies like Argo AI, Aurora, Cruise, Motional, Waymo and Zoox are working on. Level 5, which is widely viewed as a distant goal, would handle all driving in all environments and conditions.

Here is an important bit via Acosta’s summarization:

DMV asked CJ to address from an engineering perspective, Elon’s messaging about L5 capability by the end of the year. Elon’s tweet does not match engineering reality per CJ. Tesla is at Level 2 currently. The ratio of driver interaction would need to be in the magnitude of 1 or 2 million miles per driver interaction to move into higher levels of automation. Tesla indicated that Elon is extrapolating on the rates of improvement when speaking about L5 capabilities. Tesla couldn’t say if the rate of improvement would make it to L5 by end of calendar year.

Portions of this commentary were redacted. However, Plainsite was able to copy and paste the redacted part, which shows up as white space on a PDF, into another document.

The comments in the memo are contrary to what Musk has said repeatedly in the public sphere.

Musk is frequently asked on Twitter and in quarterly earnings calls for progress reports on FSD, including questions about when it will be rolled out via software updates to owners who have purchased the option. In a January earnings call, Musk said he was “highly confident the car will be able to drive itself with reliability in excess of a human this year.” In April 2021, during the company’s first quarter earnings call, Musk said “it’s really quite, quite tricky. But I am highly confident that we will get this done.”

The memo released this week provided other insights into Tesla’s push to test and eventually unlock greater levels of autonomy, including the number of vehicles testing a beta version of “Navigate on Autopilot on City Streets,” a feature that is meant to handle driving in urban areas and not just highways. Regulators also asked the Tesla employees if and how participants were being trained to test this feature, and how the sales team ensures that messaging about the vehicle capabilities and limitations are communicated.

As of the March meeting, there were 824 vehicles in a pilot program testing a beta version of “city streets.”  About 750 of those vehicles were being driven by employees and 71 by non-employees. Pilot participants are located across 37 states, with the majority of participants in California. As of March 2021, pilot participants have driven more than 153,000 miles using the City Streets feature, the memo states. The memo noted that Tesla planned to expand this pool of participants to approximately 1,600 later that month.

Tesla told the DMV that it is working on developing a video for the participants and that the next group of participants will include referrals from existing participants. “The new participants will be vetted by Tesla by looking at insurance telematics based on the VINs registered to that participant,” according to the memo.

Tesla also told the DMV that it is able to track when there are failures or when the feature is deactivated. Moore described these as “disengagements,” a term also used by companies testing and developing autonomous vehicle technology. The primary difference worth noting here is that these companies only use employees who are trained safety drivers, not the public.

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Betting on upcoming startup markets

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Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Want it in your inbox every Saturday? Sign up here.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.

Betting on upcoming startup markets

This week M25, a venture capital concern focused on investing in the Midwest of the United States, announced a new fund worth $31.8 million. As the firm noted in a release that The Exchange reviewed, its new fund is about three times the size of its preceding investment vehicle.

I caught up with M25 partner Mike Asem to chat about the round. Asem joined M25 in 2016 after partner Victor Gutwein spearheaded the effort with a small $1 million fund. Asem and Gutwein have led the firm since its first material, if technically second fund.

Asem said that his team had targeted a $25 million to $30 million fund three, meaning that they came in a bit higher than anticipated in fundraising terms. That’s not a surprise in today’s venture capital market, given the pace at which capital is both invested into VC funds and startups.

The investor told The Exchange that M25 has been investing out of its third fund for some time, including CASHDROP, a startup that I’ve heard good things about regarding its growth rate. (More here on the CASHDROP round that M25 put capital into.)

All that’s fine, but what makes M25 an interesting bet is that the firm only invests in Midwest-headquartered startups. Often when I chat to a fund that has a unique geographical focus, it’s merely that, a focus. As opposed to M25’s more hard-and-fast rule. Now with more capital and plans to take part in 12-15 deals per year, the group can double down on its thesis.

Per Asem, M25 has done about a third of its deals in Chicago, where it’s based, but has put capital into startups in 24 cities thus far. TechCrunch covered one of those companies, Metafy, earlier this week when it closed more than $5 million in new capital.

Why does M25 think that the Midwest is the place to deploy capital and generate outsize returns? Asem listed a number of perspectives that underpin his team’s thesis: The Midwest’s economic might, the network that his partner and him developed in the area before founding M25, and the fact that valuations can prove to be more attractive in the region at the stage that his firm invests. They are sufficiently different, he said, that his firm can generate material returns even with exits at around the $100 million mark, a lower threshold than most VCs with larger capital vehicles might find palatable.

M25 is not alone in its bets on alternative regions. The Exchange also chatted with Somak Chattopadhyay of Armory Square Ventures on Friday, a firm that is based in upstate New York and invests in B2B software companies in what we might call post-manufacturing cities. One of its investments has gone public, and the group’s latest fund is a multiple of the size of its first. Armory now has around $60 million in AUM.

All that’s to say that the venture capital boom is not merely helping firms like a16z raise another billion here, or another billion there. But the generally hot market for startups and private capital is helping even smaller firms raise more capital to take on less traditional spaces. It’s heartening.

On-demand pricing, and grokking the insurance game

This week The Exchange chatted with Twilio CFO Khozema Shipchandler about his company’s earnings report. You can read more on the hard numbers here. The short gist is that it was a good quarter. But what mattered most in our chat was Shipchandler riffing on where the center of gravity at Twilio will remain in revenue terms.

Briefly, Twilio is best known for building APIs that allow developers to leverage telecom services. Those developers and their employers pay for as much Twilio as they used. But over time Twilio has bought more and more companies, building out a diverse product set after its 2016-era IPO.

So we were curious: Where does the company stand on the on-demand versus SaaS pricing debate that is currently raging in the software world? Staunchly in the first camp, still, despite buying Segment, which is a SaaS service. Per Shipchandler, Twilio revenue is still more than 70% on-demand, and the company wants to make sure that its customers only buy more of its services as they sell more of their own.

Startups, then, probably don’t have to give up on on-demand pricing as they scale. Twilio is huge and is sticking to it!

Then there was Root’s earnings report. Again, here are the core numbers. The Exchange is keeping tabs on Root’s post-IPO performance not only because it was a company we tracked extensively during its late private life, but also because it is a bellwether of sorts for the yet-private, neoinsurane companies. Which matters for fellow neoinsurance player Hippo, as it is going public via a SPAC.

Alex Timm, Root’s CEO, said that his firm performed well in the first quarter, generating more direct written premium than anticipated, and at better loss-rates to boot. The company also remains very cash-rich post IPO, and Timm is confident that his company’s data science work has lots more room to improve Root’s underwriting models.

So, faster-than-expected growth, lots of cash, improving economics and a bullish technology take — Root’s stock is flying, right? No, it is not. Instead Root has taken a bit of a public-market pounding in recent months. The Exchange asked Timm about the disparity between how he views his company’s performance and future, and how it is being valued. He said that the insurance folks don’t always get its technology work and that tech folks don’t always grok Root’s insurance business.

That’s tough. But with years and years of cash at its current burn rate, Root has more than enough space to prove its critics wrong, provided that its modeling holds up over the next dozen quarters or so. Its share price can’t be great for the yet-private neoinsurance companies, however. Even if Next Insurance did just raise another grip of cash at another new, higher valuation.

Corporate spend’s big week

As you’ve read by now, Bill.com is buying corporate-spend unicorn Divvy for $2.5 billion. I dug into the numbers behind the deal here, if that’s your sort of thing.

But after collecting notes from the CEOs of Divvy competitors Ramp and Brex here, another bit of commentary came in that I wanted to share. Thejo Kote, the corporate spend startup Airbase’s CEO and founder did some math on Divvy’s results that Bill.com shared with its own investors, arguing that the company’s March payment volume and active customer account implies that the company’s “average spend volume per customer was $44,400 per month.”

Is that good or bad? Kote is not impressed, saying that Airbase’s “average spend volume per customer is almost 10 [times] that of Divvy,” or around “$375,000 per month.” What’s driving that difference? A focus on larger customers, and the fact that Airbase covers more ground, in Kote’s view, than Divvy by encompassing software work that Bill.com itself and Expensify manage.

I bring you all of this as the war in managing spend for companies large and small is heating up in software terms. With Divvy off the table, Ramp is now perhaps the largest player in the space not charging for the software it wraps around corporate cards. Brex recently launched a software product that it charges for on a recurring basis. (More on Brex at this link, if you are into it.)

Various and sundry

Two final notes for you, things that should make you either laugh, grimace, or howl:

  1. The Wall Street Journal’s Eliot Brown tweeted some data this week from the Financial Times, namely that amongst the roughly 40 SPACs that completed deals last year, a dozen and a half have lost more than half their value. And that the average drop amongst the combined entities is 38%. Woof.
  2. And, finally, welcome to peak everything.

More to come next week, including notes on the return of the Kaltura and Procore IPOs, and whatever it is we can suss out from the Krispy Kreme S-1 filing, as donuts are life.

Alex

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