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TikTok has until Friday to respond to Italy’s order to block users it can’t age-verify after girl’s death

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TikTok has until Friday to respond to an order by Italy’s data protection agency to block users whose age it cannot verify, TechCrunch has learned.

The GPDP made an ‘immediate’ order Friday in response to the death of a 10-year-old girl from Palermo who died of asphyxiation after participating in a ‘blackout challenge’ on the social network, according to reports in local media.

The agency said the ban would remain place until February 15 — suggesting it would make another assessment about any additional action at that point.

At the time of writing it does not appear that TikTok has taken action to comply with the GPDP’s order.

A spokeswoman told us it is reviewing the notification. “We have received and are currently reviewing the notification from Garante,” she said. “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we are constantly strengthening our policies, processes and technologies to protect all users, and our younger users in particular.”

The GPDP had already raised concerns about children’s privacy on TikTok, warning in December that its age verification checks are easily circumvented and raising objections over default settings that make users’ content public. On December 22 it also announced it had opened a formal procedure — giving TikTok 30 days to respond.

The order to block users whose age it cannot verify is in addition to that action. If TikTok does not comply with the GPDP’s administrative order it could face enforcement from the Italian agency, drawing on penalty powers set out in the GDPR.

TikTok’s spokeswoman declined to answer additional questions about the order — which prohibits it from further processing user data “for whom there is no absolute certainty of age”, per GPDP’s press release Friday.

The company also did not respond when we asked if it had submitted a response to the agency’s formal procedure.

In a statement last week following the girl’s death the company said: “Our deepest sympathies are with the girl’s family and friends. At TikTok, the safety of our community — in particular our younger users — is our priority, and we do not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies dangerous behaviour that might lead to injury. We offer robust safety controls and resources for teens and families on our platform, and we regularly evolve our policies and protections in our ongoing commitment to our community.”

TikTok has said it has found no evidence of any challenge involving asphyxiation on its platform.

Although, in recent years, there have been a number of previous reports of underage users hanging themselves (or attempting to) after trying to copy things they saw on the platform.

Users frequently create and respond to content challenges, as part of TikTok’s viral appeal — such as (recently) a trend for singing sea shanties.

At the time of writing, a search on the platform for ‘#blackoutchallenge’ returns no user content but displays a warning that the phrase “may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines”.

Screengrab of the warning users see if they search for ‘blackout challenge’ (Image credit: TechCrunch)

There have been TikTok challenges related to ‘hanging’ (as in people hanging by parts of their body other than their neck from/off objects) — and a search for #hangingchallenge does still return results (including some users discussing the death of the 10-year-old girl).

Last year a number of users also participated in an event on the platform in which they posted images of black squares — using the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday — which related to Black Lives Matters protests.

So the term ‘blackout’ has similarly been used on TikTok in relation to encouraging others to post content. Though not in that case in relation to asphyxiation.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, which has been lined up as TikTok’s lead data supervisor in Europe — following the company’s announcement last year that its Irish entity would take over legal responsibility for processing European users’ data — does not have an open inquiry into the platform “at present”, per a spokesman.

But TikTok is already facing a number of other investigations and legal challenges in Europe, including an investigation into how the app handles users data by France’s watchdog CNIL — announced last summer.

In recent years, France’s CNIL has been responsible for handing out some of the largest penalties for tech giants for infringing EU data protection laws (including fines for Google and Amazon).

In December, it also emerged that a 12-year-old girl in the UK is bringing a legal challenge against TikTok — claiming it uses children’s data unlawfully. A court ruled she can remain anonymous if the case goes ahead.

Last month Ireland’s data protection regulator put out draft guidelines on what it couched as “the Fundamentals for a Child-Oriented Approach to Data Processing” — with the stated aim of driving improvements in standards of data processing related to minors.

While the GDPR typically requires data protection complaints to be funnelled through a lead agency, under the one-stop-shop mechanism, Italy’s GPDP’s order to TikTok to cease processing is possible under powers set out in the regulation (Article 66) that allow for ‘urgency procedures’ to be undertaken by national watchdogs in instances of imperative risk.

Although any such provisional measures can only last for three months — and only apply to the country where the DPA has jurisdiction (Italy in this case). Ireland’s DPC would be the EU agency responsible for leading any resulting investigation.

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

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Freemium isn’t a trend — it’s the future of SaaS

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As the COVID-19 lockdowns cascaded around the world last spring, companies large and small saw demand slow to a halt seemingly overnight. Enterprises weren’t comfortable making big, long-term commitments when they had no clue what the future would hold.

Innovative SaaS companies responded quickly by making their products available for free or at a steep discount to boost demand.

While Zoom gets all the attention, there were hundreds of free SaaS tools to help folks through the pandemic. Pluralsight ran a #FreeApril campaign, offering free access to its platform for all of April. Cloudflare made its Teams product free from March until September 1, 2020. GitHub went free for teams in April and slashed the price of its paid Team plan.

A selection of new free, free trial and low-priced offerings from leading SaaS companies. Image Credits: Kyle Poyar/OpenView.

The free products were aimed squarely at end users — whether it be a developer, individual marketer, sales rep or someone else at the edge of an organization. These end users were stuck at home during the pandemic, yet they desperately needed software to power their working lives.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them.

End users prefer to do the vast majority of their research online before ever talking to a sales rep, making free products the ideal way to reach them. Many end users want to jump straight into a product, no hassle or credit card or budget approval required.

After they’ve set up an account and customized it for their workflow, end users have essentially already made a purchase decision with their time — all without ever feeling like they were in an active buying cycle.

An end user-focused free offering became an essential SaaS survival strategy in 2020.

But these free offerings didn’t go away as lockdowns loosened up. SaaS companies instead doubled down on freemium because they realized that doing so had a real and positive impact on their business. In doing so, they busted the outdated myths that have held 82% of SaaS companies back from offering their own free plan.

Myth: A free offering will cannibalize paying customers

GoDaddy is a digital behemoth, known for being a ’90s-era pioneer in web domains as well as for their controversial Super Bowl ads. The company has steadily diversified into business software, now generating roughly $700 million in ARR from its business applications segment and reaching millions of paying customers. There are very few businesses that would see greater potential revenue cannibalization from launching a free product than GoDaddy.

But GoDaddy didn’t let fear stop them from testing freemium when lockdowns set in. Freemium started out as a small-scale experiment in spring 2020 for the websites and marketing product. GoDaddy has since increased the experiment to 50% of U.S. website traffic, with plans to scale to 100% of U.S. traffic and open availability to other markets in 2021.

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Metafy adds $5.5M to its seed round as the market for games coaching grows

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This morning Metafy, a distributed startup building a marketplace to match gamers with instructors, announced that it has closed an additional $5.5 million to its $3.15 million seed round. Call it a seed-2, seed-extension or merely a baby Series A; Forerunner Ventures, DCM and Seven Seven Six led the round as a trio.

Metafy’s model is catching on with its market. According to its CEO Josh Fabian, the company has grown from incorporation to gross merchandise volume (GMV) of $76,000 in around nine months. That’s quick.

The startup is building in public, so we have its raw data to share. Via Fabian, here’s how Metafy has grown since its birth:

From the company. As a small tip, if you want the media to care about your startup’s growth rate, share like this!

When TechCrunch first caught wind of Metafy via prior seed investor M25, we presumed that it was a marketplace that was built to allow esports pros and other highly capable gamers teach esports-hopefuls get better at their chosen title. That’s not the case.

Don’t think of Metafy as a marketplace where you can hire a former professional League of Legends player to help improve your laning-phase AD carry mechanics. Though that might come in time. Today a full 0% of the company’s current GMV comes from esports titles. Instead, the company is pursuing games with strong niche followings, what Fabian described as “vibrant, loyal communities.” Like Super Smash Brothers, its leading game today in terms of GMV generated.

Why pursue those titles instead of the most competitive games? Metafy’s CEO explained that his startup has a particular take on its market — that it focuses on coaches as its core customer, over trainees. This allows the startup to focus on its mission of making coaching a full-time gig, or at least one that pays well enough to matter. By doing so, Metafy has cut its need for marketing spend, because the coaches that it onboards bring their own audience. This is where the company is targeting games with super-dedicated user bases, like Smash. They fit well into its build for coaches, onboard coaches, coaches bring their fans, GMV is generated model.

Metafy has big plans, which brings us back to its recent raise. Fabian told TechCrunch any game with a skill curve could wind up on Metafy. Think chess, poker or other games that can be played digitally. To build toward that future, Metafy decided to take on more capital so that it could grow its team.

So what does its $5.5 million unlock for the startup? Per its CEO, Metafy is currently a team of 18 with a monthly burn rate of around $80,000. He wants it to grow to 30 folks, with nearly all of its new hires going into its product org, broadly.

TechCrunch’s perspective is that gaming is not becoming mainstream, but that it has already done so. Building for the gaming world, then, makes good sense, as tools like Metafy won’t suffer from the same boom/bust cycles that can plague game developers. Especially as the startup becomes more diversified in its title base.

Normally we’d close by noting that we’ll get back in touch with the company in a few quarters to see how it’s getting on in growth terms. But because it’s sharing that data publicly, we’ll simply keep reading. More when we have a few months’ more data to chew on.

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Snap to launch a new Creator Marketplace this month, initially focused on Lens Creators

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Snap on Wednesday announced its plan to soon launch a Creator Marketplace, which will make it easier for businesses to find and partner with Snapchat creators, including Lens creators, AR creators and later, prominent Snapchat creators known as Snap Stars. At launch, the marketplace will focus on connecting brands and AR creators for AR ads. It will then expand to support all Snap Creators by 2022.

The company had previously helped connect its creator community with advertisers through its Snapchat Storytellers program, which first launched into pilot testing in 2018 — already a late arrival to the space. However, that program’s focus was similar to Facebook’s Brand Collabs Manager, as it focused on helping businesses find Snap creators who could produce video content.

Snap’s new marketplace, meanwhile, has a broader focus in terms of connecting all sorts of creators with the Snap advertising ecosystem. This includes Lens Creators, Developers and Partners, and then later, Snap’s popular creators with public profiles.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will open to businesses later this month to help them partner with a select group of AR Creators in Snap’s Lens Network. These creators can help businesses build AR experiences without the need for extensive creative resources, which makes access to Snap’s AR ads more accessible to businesses, including smaller businesses without in-house developer talent.

Lens creators have already found opportunity working for businesses that want to grow their Snapchat presence — even allowing some creators to quit their day jobs and just build Lenses for a living. Snap has been further investing in this area of its business, having announced in December a $3.5 million fund directed toward AR Lens creation. The company said at the time there were tens of thousands of Lens creators who had collectively made over 1.5 million Lenses to date.

Using Lenses has grown more popular, too, the company had noted, saying that more than 180 million people interact with a Snapchat Lens every day — up from 70 million daily active users of Lenses when the Lens Explorer section first launched in the app in 2018.

Now, Snap says that over 200 million Snapchat users interact with augmented reality on a daily basis, on average, out of its 280 million daily users. The majority (over 90%) of these users are 13 to 25-year-olds. In total, users are posting over 5 billion Snaps per day.

Snap says the Creator Marketplace will remain focused on connecting businesses with AR Lens Creators throughout 2021.

The following year, it will expand to include the community of professional creators and storytellers who understand the current trends and interests of the Snap user base and can help businesses with their ad campaigns. The company will not take a cut of the deals facilitated through the Marketplace, it says.

This would include the creators making content for Snap’s new TikTok rival, Spotlight, which launched in November 2020. Snap encouraged adoption of the feature by shelling out $1 million per day to creators of top videos. In March 2021, over 125 million Snapchat users watched Spotlight, it says.

Image Credits: Snapchat

Spotlight isn’t the only way Snap is challenging TikTok.

The company also on Wednesday announced it’s snagging two of TikTok’s biggest stars for its upcoming Snap Originals lineup: Charli and Dixie D’Amelio. The siblings, who have gained over 20 million follows on Snapchat this past year, will star in the series “Charli vs. Dixie.” Other new Originals will feature names like artist Megan Thee Stallion, actor Ryan Reynolds, twins and influencers Niki and Gabi DeMartino, and YouTube beauty vlogger Manny Mua, among others.

Snap’s shows were watched by over 400 million people in 2020, including 93% of the Gen Z population in the U.S., it noted.

 

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