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Google claims almost no change in ad revenue from targeting proposals in its Privacy Sandbox — but privacy upside less clear

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As Google’s Privacy Sandbox remains under scrutiny over competition concerns, the tech giant has released an update claiming experimental ad-targeting techniques it’s developing as part of the plan to depreciate support for third party cookies on its Chrome browser show results that are “nearly as effective as cookie-based approaches”.

Google has been working on a technique — called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) — to target ads based on clustering users into groups with similar interests, which it claims is superior from a privacy perspective vs the current (dysfunctional) ‘norm’ of targeting individuals based on third parties tracking everything they do online.

It wants FLoCs to enable interest-based advertising to continue after it ends support for third party trackers.

However the proposal has alarmed advertisers who argue it’s anti-competitive. And earlier this month the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) opened an investigation of the Privacy Sandbox proposal after complaints from a coalition of digital marketing companies and others from newspapers and technology companies alleging Google is abusing a dominant position by depreciating support for third party trackers.

On the privacy front Google’s self-styled Privacy Sandbox isn’t exactly attracting effusive plaudits, either.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has, for example, dubbed FLoCs “the opposite of privacy-preserving technology” — warning in 2019 that the approach is akin to a “behavioral credit score”. It said then that the proposals risk sustaining discrimination against vulnerable groups of people, whose online activity would be pattern-matched with others without their say-so; and could also lead to leaking sensitive info about them to third parties — without offering web users any way to escape being put in a ‘interest based’ ad targeting bucket. 

With objections piling up from on sides of the aisle (advertiser vs user) — and now active regulatory scrutiny of the competition issue — Google has its work cut out to sell its preferred replacement for tracking cookies to all the relevant stakeholders. Though advertisers (and competition regulators) currently seem front of mind for the tech giant.

In an update about the Privacy Sandbox proposals today, Google appears to be hoping to alleviate advertisers’ concerns that the demise of tracking cookies will degrade their ability to lucratively target Internet users — writing that tests of the FLoC technology suggest advertisers will continue to see “at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising”.

It’s not clear how much test data was involved in Google generating that percentage, however. (We asked and Google did not have an immediate response.) So there’s zero meat on the bone of the ‘95% minimum’ claim.

Its spokesman did note that it will be opening up public testing in March — and expects advertisers to join in kicking FLoC’s tires then. So there’s clearly going to be more detail to come on this front.

“Chrome intends to make FLoC-based cohorts available for public testing through origin trials with its next release in March and we expect to begin testing FLoC-based cohorts with advertisers in Google Ads in Q2,” writes Chetna Bindra, group product manager for user trust and privacy in the blog post, adding: “If you’d like to get a head start, you can run your own simulations (as we did) based on the principles outlined in this FLoC whitepaper.”

It’s unsurprisingly that Google continues to emphasize the relative openness with which it’s developing the Privacy Sandbox proposals — as that may help it fight antitrust accusations. But it’s also noteworthy being as the adtech industry, which has been fighting to block/delay its depreciation of third party cookies, is busy spinning up its own contenders to replace trackers — and developing those competing proposals typically with a lot less transparency than Google.

Nonetheless, Google seems a whole more comfortable quantifying FLoC’s potential impact on ad revenue (tiny, per its latest claim) vs articulating what privacy gains Internet users might expect from the proposed shift from individual tracking to run behavioral ads to being stuck in labelled buckets to run behavioral ads.

Google’s blog post has a few fuzzy mentions — like “viable privacy-first alternatives” and ‘hiding individuals “in the crowd”’ — but there’s no metric or data offered on how much privacy users stand to gain if its preferred post-cookie future comes to pass.

Test results it published in October also focused on seeking to demonstrate to advertisers that FLoCs can deliver on other relevant ad metrics. Funnily enough, Internet users’ privacy — and what happens when degrees of privacy are lost — is rather harder for Google’s computer scientists to measure.

“The idea is to make it so that no one can reconstruct your cross-site browsing history,” said the company’s spokesman when we asked about how the proposal will improve users’ privacy standing.

“We’re trying to address non-transparent forms of tracking, across websites, with privacy-safe mechanisms for consumers, and make it so it can’t happen. And to do so while still enabling opportunity and fair compensation for publishers and advertisers. So it’s really not even a matter of trying to approximate a kind of privacy: We’re trying to address a root critical concern of users, full stop,” he added.

FLoCs are just one part of Google’s Privacy Sandbox proposals. The company is working on a slew of aligned efforts to simultaneously replace various other key components of the adtech ecosystem. And it gives an overview of some of these in the blog post — covering proposals for (post-cookie) conversation measurement; ad-fraud prevention; and anti-fingerprinting.

Here it dwells briefly on retargeting/remarketing — referring to a new Chrome proposal (called Fledge) that it says it’s considering for a ‘trusted server’ model “specifically designed to store information about a campaign’s bids and budgets”. This will also be made available for advertisers to test later this year, Google adds.

“Over the last year, several members of the ad tech community have offered input for how this might work, including proposals from Criteo, NextRoll, Magnite and RTB House. Chrome has published a new proposal called FLEDGE that expands on a previous Chrome proposal (called TURTLEDOVE) and takes into account the industry feedback they’ve heard, including the idea of using a ‘trusted server’ — as defined by compliance with certain principles and policies — that’s specifically designed to store information about a campaign’s bids and budgets. Chrome intends to make FLEDGE available for testing through origin trials later this year with the opportunity for ad tech companies to try using the API under a “bring your own server” model,” it writes.

“Technology advancements such as FLoC, along with similar promising efforts in areas like measurement, fraud protection and anti-fingerprinting, are the future of web advertising — and the Privacy Sandbox will power our web products in a post-third-party cookie world,” it adds.

Discussing Fledge’s potential, Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent researcher and consultant, said there’s still a lot of uncertainty over how it might impact user privacy. “The Fledge experiment looks potentially interesting but it mixes in various proposals in this test. Such a mix would need to get a specific privacy assessment as the offered privacy qualities might be different than original claimed. Furthermore, the current tests will have many privacy precautions intended for the future, turned off initially. It will be tricky to gradually turn them on,” he told TechCrunch.

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The rise of the tech workers union and what comes next

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While not entirely non-existent, the union has been an elusive phenomenon in Silicon Valley. More recently, however, big names like Google and Kickstarter have taken key steps toward forming unions, as have smaller startups like Glitch, which made history this week by signing a collective bargaining agreement – the first team of software engineers to do so. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama, meanwhile, are currently on the cusp of forming their own historic union. In this panel from TC Sessions: Justice, we discuss how we got here, what comes next and steps tech employees can take.


On Why Now?

As has been the case with management throughout history, tech companies have long fought tooth and nail against labor organizing. Over the course of the last couple of years, however, we may have seen something of a critical mass that could represent the beginnings of a sea change for the industry.

Redwine: It seems like tech workers are reacting to some of the maturity of tech and the expansion of the platforms that we all work on, and also more worker instability in general in the US, especially. I think it’s sort of a response that workers are becoming more formal in their organizing efforts. (Timestamp: 1:08)

Parul Koul (Google):

Koul: A variety of tactics and strategies have been tried, and we’ve been able to analyze the successes and failures of past movements and arrive at a point where we’ve developed enough institutional and organizational knowledge to try something new and – in some ways – more complex. (Timestamp: 3:25)


On Whether The Pandemic Will Spur More Organizing

Covid-19 has radically transformed where – and how – we work. It’s upended many industries and cause millions to lose jobs. Could the pandemic prove to be yet another inflection point for a growing movement.

Koul: In our case, what we saw was companies moving to work from home and then, in certain categories of employees, not really receiving the same benefits […] whether it’s a stipend to buy equipment or even having the benefit from working from home […] We also saw a mass movement and social and political protests against police brutality erupt right in the middle of the pandemic. For me, and many other organizers at Google, it really galvanized us to do something and respond to that in the streets and in our own way. (Timestamp: 6:56)


On How – or if – Unions Can Protect Against Layoffs

For many industries, layoffs have become all but an inevitability during the pandemic. In a number of the aforementioned cases, they’ve continued even in the wake of employee unionizing. Ultimately, how much protection does a union give workers against layoffs?

Reckers: Kickstarter won its union on February 18, 2020. The pandemic hit in mid-March. The company announced that they were going to have pretty massive layoffs in early-April. That was a very difficult time. We looked at the numbers and did see that a number of the people they were proposing to layoff were advocates for the union or union members. That was very hard to stomach. What happens, though – and where the union comes into play – is that the company was not able to just lay people off like that. Especially under the terms that they wanted to impose unilaterally, without any consultation with staff. The difference was that when the company proposed these layoffs, because there was already a union in place, Kickstarter had to negotiate with the group of employees about the terms of that layoff. (Timestamp: 9:10)


On How to Get Started

First steps toward unionization are often difficult in an environment where organizing is frowned upon management. Many early conversations happen after hours and off-the-clock for fear of repercussion. This can be doubly difficult in an environments like white collar workers tech company, where some employees don’t tacitly understand the benefits of organizing.

Reckers: You can best support each other by getting into conversations with your coworkers and understanding what’s been going on with them. The first question I often get from people is how to first start having conversations. I think that’s a challenge, especially since we’re not taught how to do that. But starting a conversation about what their experiences have been like at the organization or company, how long they’ve been there, how has there changed? What did they want to see when they were hired? What sort of workplace were they looking for? And how can we make sure that we have some way of achieving that? (Timestamp: 24:04)


On Whether Expressions of Support From Management Are Always Positive

Management often adopts the narrative that they support unions following hard fought battles. In the wake of support from certain tech executives and political leaders like Joe Biden, the question arises about whether such sentiments can ultimately have negative repercussions for organizing.

Redwine: First and foremost, it’s really important to remember that the things that people in power say do not matter. All of the power that you have doesn’t come from people at the top giving it to you. It comes from linking arms with the people next to you and taking that power and influence for yourself. (Timestamp: 28:27)

You can read the entire transcript here.

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PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency custody startup Curv

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PayPal has announced that it plans to acquire Curv, a cryptocurrency startup based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israeli newspaper Calcalist originally reported the move. And PayPal has now made an official announcement.

Curv is a cryptocurrency custody company, which means that it helps you store your crypto assets securely. The company operates a cloud-based service that lets you access your crypto wallets without any hardware device.

Curv also lets you set up sophisticated policies so that the new intern cannot withdraw crypto assets without some sort of approval chain. Similarly, you can create allow lists so that regular transactions can go through more easily.

Behind the scenes, Curv uses multi-party computation to handle private keys. When you create a wallet, cryptographic secrets are generated on your device and on Curv’s servers. Whenever you’re trying to initiate a transaction, multiple secrets are used to generate a full public and private key.

Secrets are rotated regularly and you can’t do anything with just one secret. If somebody steals an unsecured laptop, a hacker cannot access crypto funds with the information stored on this device alone.

As you can see, Curv isn’t a cryptocurrency wallet for end users. The company offers its services to exchanges, brokers and over-the-counter desks. If you’re running a fund and you plan on buying a large amount of cryptocurrencies, you could also consider using Curv.

Finally, financial institutions that are looking for a solution to store digital assets and diversify their balance sheet could also work with Curv.

PayPal says that the Curv team will join the cryptocurrency group within PayPal. The payment giant has been gradually rolling out cryptocurrency products. It has partnered with Paxos so that users in the U.S. can buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies from their PayPal account.

In the near future, PayPal also plans to let you buy and sell items using cryptocurrencies. During its most recent earnings release, the company also said that it plans to launch cryptocurrency products in other countries and in Venmo, the consumer fintech super app owned by PayPal.

Terms of the deal are undisclosed and the transaction should close at some point during the first half of 2021. Calcalist reported that PayPal was paying between $200 million and $300 million for the acquisition. A person close to the company says that the transaction was under $200 million. I guess we’ll find out what happened exactly in the next earnings release.

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Last-mile delivery robotics company Refraction AI raises $4.2M

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Ann Arbor-based Refraction AI announced today that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round. The startup, which debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage back in 2019, was founded by a pair of University of Michigan professors (Matthew Johnson-Roberson — now CTO — and Ram Vasudevan) seeking to solve a number of issues posed by many delivery robots.

With an initial prototype built on a bicycle foundation, the company’s REV-1 robot is designed to operate in bike lanes and roads, rather than the standard sidewalk ‘bot. The different approach allows the robot to travel at higher speeds (topping out at 15 miles per hour) and removes some of the messy pedestrian-dodging issues that come with sidewalk use (while introducing some new ones on that narrow sliver of asphalt shared by cyclists).

Refraction is currently testing a small fleet in its native Ann Arbor. The seed round, led by Pillar VC, will be used for R&D, expanding the company’s reach and recruiting more customers, with a focus on grocery store and restaurant deliveries. Other investors include, eLab Ventures, Osage Venture Partners, Trucks Venture Capital, Alumni Ventures Group, Chad Laurans and Invest Michigan.

Another key differentiator is the use of cameras, versus LIDAR. The decision comes with some technological trade-offs, but benefits include a lower price point and the ability for the company to more quickly scale its fleet. The technology is also not easily districted by weather conditions encountered in the upper midwest, though it has limitations, too. As the company puts it, if you’re not comfortable walking out in it, the robot probably won’t be, either.

“Our platform uses technology that exists today in an innovative way, to get people the things they need, when they need them, where they live,” CEO Luke Schneider said in a release tied to the news. “And we’re doing so in a way that reduces business’ costs, makes roads less congested, and eliminates carbon emissions.”

With this new funding, the company plans to expand operations beyond its native Ann Arbor, though no additional test markets have been announced.

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