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Apple’s Tim Cook warns of adtech fuelling a “social catastrophe” as he defends app tracker opt-in

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Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has urged Europe to step up privacy enforcement in a keynote speech to the CPDP conference today — echoing many of the points he made in Brussels in person two years ago when he hit out at the ‘data industrial complex’ underpinning the adtech industry’s mass surveillance of Internet users.

Reforming current-gen adtech is now a humanitarian imperative, he argued in a speech that took a bunch of thinly-veiled swipes at Facebook.

“As I said in Brussels two years ago, it is certainly time, not only for a comprehensive privacy law here in the United States, but also for worldwide laws and new international agreements that enshrine the principles of data minimization, user knowledge, user access and data security across the globe,” said Cook.

“Together, we must send a universal, humanistic response to those who claim a right to users’ private information about what should not and will not be tolerated,” he added.

The message comes at a critical time for Apple as it prepares to flip a switch that will, for the first time, require developers to gain opt-in user consent to tracking.

Earlier today Apple confirmed it would be enabling the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature in the next beta release of iOS 14, which it said would roll out in early spring.

The tech giant had intended to debut the feature last year but delayed to give developers more time to adapt.

Adtech giant Facebook has also been aggressively briefing against the shift, warning of a major impact on publishers who use its ad network once Apple gives its users the ability to refuse third party tracking.

Reporting its Q4 earnings yesterday, Facebook also sounded a warning over “more significant advertising headwinds” impacting its own bottom line this year — naming Apple’s ATT as a risk (as well as what it couched as “the evolving regulatory landscape”).

In the speech to a data protection and privacy conference which is usually held in Brussels (but has been streamed online because of the pandemic), Cook made an aggressive defence of ATT and Apple’s pro-privacy stance in general, saying the forthcoming tracking opt-in is about “returning control to users” and linking adtech-fuelled surveilled of Internet users to a range of harms, including the spread of conspiracy theories, extremism and real-world violence.

“Users have asked for this feature for a long time,” he said of ATT. “We have worked closely with developers to give them the time and resources to implement it and we’re passionate about it because we think it has great potential to make things better for everybody.”

The move has attracted a competition challenge in France where four online advertising lobbies filed an antitrust complaint last October — arguing that Apple requiring developers ask app users for permission to track them is an abuse of market power by Apple. (A similar complaint has been lodged in the UK over Google’s move to depreciated third party tracking cookies in Chrome — and there the regulator has opened an investigation.)

The Information also reported today that Facebook is preparing to lodge an antitrust lawsuit against Apple — so the legal stakes are rising. (Though the social media giant is itself being sued by the FTC which alleges it has maintained a social networking monopoly via years of anti-competitive conduct… )

In the speech Cook highlighted another recent pro-privacy move made by Apple to require iOS developers to display “privacy nutrition” labels within the App Store — providing users with an overview of their data collection practices. Both the labels and the incoming ATT apply in the case of Apple’s own apps (not just third parties), as we reported earlier.

Cook said these moves align with Apple’s overarching philosophy: To make technology that “serves people and has their well-being in mind” — contrasting its approach with a rapacious ‘data industrial complex’ that wants to aggregate information about everything people do online to use against them, as a tool of mass manipulation.

“It seems no piece of information is too private or personal to be surveilled, monetized and aggregated into a 360 degree view of your life,” Cook warned. “The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer; you are the product.

“When ATT is in full effect users will have a say over this kind of tracking. Some may well think that sharing this degree of information is worth it for more targeted ads. Many others, I suspect, will not. Just as most appreciated it when we built this similar functionality into Safari limiting web trackers several years ago,” he went on, adding that: “We see developing these kinds of privacy-centric features and innovations as a core responsibility of our work. We always have, we always will.”

Apple’s CEO pointed out that advertising has flourished in the past without the need for privacy-hostile mass surveillance, arguing: “Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it. And we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.”

He also made some veiled sideswipes at Facebook — avoiding literally naming the adtech giant but hitting out at the notion of a business that’s built on “surveilling users”, on “data exploitation” and on “choices that are no choices at all”.

Such an entity “does not deserve our praise, it deserves reform”, he went on, having earlier heaped praise on Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for its role in furthering privacy rights — telling conference delegates that enforcement “must continue”. (The GDPR’s weak spot to date has been exactly that; but 2.5 years in there are signs the regime is getting into a groove.)

In further sideswipes at Facebook, Cook attacked the role of data-gobbling, engagement-obsessed adtech in fuelling disinformation and conspiracy theories — arguing that the consequences of such an approach are simply too high for democratic societies to accept.

“We should not look away from the bigger picture,” he argued. “At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement, the longer the better. And all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible.

“Too many are still asking the question how much can we get away with? When they need to be asking what are the consequences? What are the consequences of prioritizing conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of the high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in lifesaving vaccinations? What are consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more,” he went on — sketching a number of scenarios of which Facebook’s business stands directly accused.

“It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cost. Of polarization. Of lost trust. And — yes — of violence. A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe,” he added, rebranding ‘The Social Network’ at a stroke.

Apple has reason to appeal to a European audience of data protection experts to further its fight with adtech objectors to its ATT, as EU regulators have the power to take enforcement decisions that would align with and support its approach. Although they have been shy to do so so far.

Facebook’s lead data protection supervisor in Europe, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), has a backlog of investigations into a number of aspects of its business — including its use of so-called ‘forced consent’ (as users are not given any choice over being tracked for ad targeting if they wish to use its services).

That lack of choice stands in stark contrast to the change Apple is driving on its App Store, where all entities will be required to ask users if they want to be tracked. So Apple’s move aligns with the principles of European data protection law (which, for example, requires that consent for processing people’s data be freely given in order to be legally valid).

Equally, Facebook’s continued refusal to give users a choice stands in direct conflict with EU law and risks GDPR enforcement. (The kind Cook was urging in his speech.)

2021 looks like it could be a critical year on that front. A long running DPC investigation into the transparency of data-sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook is headed for enforcement this year — after Ireland sent a draft decision to the other EU data protection agencies at the back end of last year.

Last week Politico reported WhatsApp could be on the hook for a fine of between €30M and €50M in that single case. More pertinently for the tech giant — which paid a $5BN fine to the FTC in 2019 to settle charges related to privacy failings (but was not required to make any material changes to how it operates its ad business) — WhatsApp could be ordered to change how it handles user data.

A regulatory order to stop processing certain types of user data — or mandating it ask users for consent before it can do so — could clearly have a far greater impact on Facebook’s business empire.

The tech giant is also facing a final verdict later this year on whether it can continue to legally transfer European users’ data out of the bloc.

If Facebook is ordered to suspend such data flows that would mean massive disruption to a sizeable chunk of its business (in 2019 it reported 286M DAUs in the region in Q1).

So — in short — the regulatory conditions around Facebook’s business are certainly ‘evolving’.

The data industrial complex’s fight back against the looming privacy enforcement at Apple’s platform level involves ploughing legal resource into trying to claim such moves are anti-competitive. However EU lawmakers seem alive to this self-interested push to appropriate ‘antitrust’ as a tool to stymie privacy enforcement.

(And it’s notable that Cook referred to privacy “innovation” in the speech. Including this ask: “Will the future belong to the innovations that make our lives better, more fulfilled and more human?” — which is really the key question in the privacy vs competition regulation ‘debate’.)

Last month Commission EVP and competition chief, Margrethe Vestager told the OECD Global Competition Forum that antitrust enforcers should be “vigilant so that privacy is not used as a shield against competition”. However her remarks had a sting in the tail for the data industrial complex — as she expressed support for a ‘superprofiling’ case against Facebook in Germany.

That case (which is continuing to be litigated by the German FCO) combines privacy and competition in new and interesting ways. If the regulator prevails it could result in a structural separation of Facebook’s social empire at the data level — in a sort of regulatory equivalent of moving fast and breaking things.

So it’s notable Vestager dubbed that piece of regulatory innovation “inspiring and interesting”. Which sounds more of a vote of confidence than condemnation from Europe’s digital policy and competition chief.

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Plant-based food startup Next Gen lands $10M seed round from investors including Temasek

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Singapore is quickly turning into a hub for food-tech startups, partly because of government initiatives supporting the development of meat alternatives. One of the newest entrants is Next Gen, which will launch its plant-based “chicken” brand, called TiNDLE, in Singaporean restaurants next month. The company announced today that it has raised $10 million in seed funding from investors including Temasek, K3 Ventures, EDB New Ventures (an investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board), NX-Food, FEBE Ventures and Blue Horizon.

Next Gen claims this is the largest seed round ever raised by a plant-based food tech company, based on data from PitchBook. This is the first time the startup has taken external investment, and the funding exceeded its original target of $7 million. Next Gen was launched last October by Timo Recker and Andre Menezes, with $2.2 million of founder capital.

Next Gen’s first product is called TiNDLE Thy, an alternative to chicken thighs. Its ingredients include water, soy, wheat, oat fiber, coconut oil and methylcellulose, a culinary binder, but the key to its chicken-like flavor is a proprietary blend of plant-based fats, like sunflower oil, and natural flavors that allows it to cook like chicken meat.

Menezes, Next Gen’s chief operating officer, told TechCrunch that the company’s goal is to be the global leader in plant-based chicken, the way Impossible and Beyond are known for their burgers.

“Consumers and chefs want texture in chicken, the taste and aroma, and that is largely related to chicken fat, which is why we started with thighs instead of breasts,” said Menezes. “We created a chicken fat made from a blend, called Lipi, to emulate the smell, aroma and browning when you cook.”

Both Recker and Menezes have years of experience in the food industry. Recker founded German-based LikeMeat, a plant-based meat producer acquired by the LIVEKINDLY Collective last year. Menezes’ food career started in Brazil at one of the world’s largest poultry exporters. He began working with plant-based meat after serving as general manager of Country Foods, a Singaporean importer and distributor that focuses on innovative, sustainable products.

“It was clear to me after I was inside the meat industry for so long that it was not going to be a sustainable business in the long run,” Menezes said.

Over the past few years, more consumers have started to feel the same way, and began looking for alternatives to animal products. UBS expects the global plant-based protein market to increase at a compounded annual growth rate of more than 30%, reaching about $50 billion by 2025, as more people, even those who aren’t vegans or vegetarians, seek healthier, humane sources of protein.

Millennial and Gen Z consumers, in particular, are willing to reduce their consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products as they become more aware of the environmental impact of industrial livestock production, said Menezes. “They understand the sustainability angle of it, and the health aspect, like the cholesterol or nutritional values, depending on what product you are talking about.”

Low in sodium and saturated fat, TiNDLE Thy has received the Healthier Choice Symbol, which is administered by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board. Next Gen’s new funding will be used to launch TiNDLE Thy, starting in popular Singaporean restaurants like Three Buns Quayside, the Prive Group, 28 HongKong Street, Bayswater Kitchen and The Goodburger.

Over the next year or two, Next Gen plans to raise its Series A round, launch more brands and products, and expand in its target markets: the United States (where it is currently recruiting a growth director to build a distribution network), China, Brazil and Europe. After working with restaurant partners, Next Gen also plans to make its products available to home cooks.

“The reason we started with chefs is because they are very hard to crack, and if chefs are happy with the product, then we’re very sure customers will be, too,” said Menezes.

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Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads

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ViacomCBS executives held a virtual investor event today where they outlined the strategy for Paramount+, the streaming service set to launch on March 4 that’s basically a rebranded, expanded version of CBS All Access.

In addition to launching in the United States, executives said the service will be available across Latin America and Canada on March 4, with a Nordic launch a few weeks later and an Australian launch also planned for this year.

And they said that Paramount+ will cost $4.99 per month with ads in the U.S. (less than the $5.99 charged for CBS All Access), or $9.99 without ads and with additional sports, news and live TV content. There are also plans to bundle this with the company’s premium subscriptions, such as Showtime.

Yes, it’s yet another streaming service with a plus in its name. But the company’s streaming president and CEO Tom Ryan said research has shown that ViacomCBS brands — not just Paramount and CBS, but Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and more — are well-known to viewers, and they’ll all be front-and-center in the new service. Plus, it’s worth noting that ViacomCBS already produces a number of hit streaming shows on other services, such as “13 Reasons Why,” “Emily in Paris” and “Jack Ryan.”

ViacomCBS executives also argued that Paramount+ will have a unique combination of live news, live sports and (to use a phrase repeated throughout the event) “a mountain of entertainment.” And from a product perspective, the service will offer originals in 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision, with easy downloads.

On the entertainment side, the service is supposed to have more than 30,000 TV show episodes and 2,500 movies. And the library will expand with new shows like a new version of “Frasier” with Kelsey Grammer returning to the role, as well as a “Halo” TV show that will now debut on Paramount+ instead of Showtime in early 2022. The service is also rebooting a variety of Paramount properties like “Love Story,” “Fatal Attraction” and “Flashdance.”

And like CBS All Access before it, Paramount+ will be home to new Star Trek shows — not just the already launched “Discovery,” “Picard” and “Lower Decks,” but also the upcoming “Strange New Worlds” and the kids animated series “Prodigy.”

On the movie side, Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos said the company is still a big believer in the theatrical model, but it will be bringing some 2021 releases — including “A Quiet Place Part 2,” the first “Paw Patrol” movie and “Mission Impossible 7” — to Paramount+ in an accelerated fashion, 30 to 45 days after they come to theaters (a much less aggressive strategy than HBO Max, which will stream all Warner Bros. movies this year simultaneously with their theatrical release). And there will be new straight-to-streaming movies as well, starting with reboots of “Paranormal Activity” and “Pet Sematary.”

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Spain’s Wallapop raises $191M at an $840M valuation for its classifieds marketplace

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Through all of the last year’s lockdowns, venue closures, and other social distancing measures that governments have enacted and people have followed to slow the spread of Covid-19, shopping — and specifically e-commerce — has remained a consistent and hugely important service. It’s not just something that we had to do; it’s been an important lifeline for many of us at a time when so little else has felt normal. Today, one of the startups that saw a big lift in its service as a result of that trend is announcing a major fundraise to fuel its growth.

Wallapop, a virtual marketplace based out of Barcelona, Spain that lets people resell their used items, or sell items like crafts that they make themselves, has raised €157 million ($191 million at current rates), money that it will use to continue growing the infrastructure that underpins its service, so that it can expand the number of people that use it.

Wallapop has confirmed that the funding is coming at a valuation of €690 million ($840 million) — a significant jump on the $570 million valuations sources close to the company gave us in 2016.

The funding is being led by Korelya Capital, a French VC fund backed by Korea’s Naver, with Accel, Insight Partners, 14W, GP Bullhound and Northzone — all previous backers of Wallapop — also participating.

The company currently has 15 million users — about half of Spain’s internet population, CEO Rob Cassedy pointed out to us in an interview earlier today, and has maintained a decent number-four ranking among Spain’s shopping apps, according to figures from App Annie.

The startup has also recently been building out shipping services, called Envios, to help people get the items they are selling to the buyers, which has expanded the range from local sales to those that can be made across the country. About 20% of goods go through Envios now, Cassedy said, and the plan is to continue doubling down on that and related services.

Naver itself is a strong player in e-commerce and apps — it’s the company behind Asian messaging giant Line, among other digital properties — and so this is in part a strategic investment. Wallapop will be leaning on Naver and its technology in its own R&D, and on Naver’s side it will give the company a foothold in the European market at a time when it has been sharpening its strategy in e-commerce.

The funding is an interesting turn for a company that has seen some notable fits and starts. Founded in 2013 in Spain, it quickly shot to the top of the charts in a market that has traditionally been slow to embrace e-commerce over more traditional brick-and-mortar retail.

By 2016, Wallapop was merging with a rival, LetGo, as part of a bigger strategy to crack the U.S. market (with more capital in tow).

But by 2018, that plan was quietly shelved, with Wallapop quietly selling its stake in the LetGo venture for $189 million. (LetGo raised $500 million more on its own around that time, but its fate was not to remain independent: it was eventually acquired by yet another competitor in the virtual classifieds space, OfferUp, in 2020, for an undisclosed sum.)

Wallapop has for the last two years focused mainly on growing in Spain rather than running after business further afield, and rather than growing the range of goods that it might sell on its platform — it doesn’t sell food, nor work with retailers in an Amazon-style marketplace play, nor does it have plans to do anything like move into video or selling other kinds of digital services — it has honed in specifically on trying to improve the experience that it does offer to users.

“I spent 12 years at eBay and saw that transition it made to new goods from used goods,” said Cassedy. “Let’s just say it wasn’t the direction I thought we should take for Wallapop. We are laser focused on unique goods, with the vast majority of that second hand with some artisan products. It is very different from big box.”

Wallapop’s growth in the past year isare the result of some specific trends in the market that were in part fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

People spending more time in their homes have been focused on clearing out space and getting rid of things. Others are keen to buy new items now that they are spending more time at home, but want to spend less on them. In both cases, there has been a push for more sustainability, with people putting less waste into the world by recycling and upcycling goods instead.

At the same time, Facebook hasn’t really made big inroads with its Marketplace in the country, and Amazon has also not appeared as a threat to Wallapop, Cassedy noted.

All of these have had a huge impact on Wallapop’s business, but it wasn’t always this way. Cassedy said that the first lockdown in Spain saw business plummet, as people were restricted to leave their homes.

“It was a rollercoaster for us,” he said. “We entered the year with incredible momentum, very strong.”

He noted that the drop started in March, when “not only did it become not okay to leave house and trade locally but the post office stopped delivering parcels. Our business went off a cliff in March and April.”

Then when the restrictions were lifted in May, things started to bounce back than ever before, nearly overnight, he said. “The economic uncertainty caused people to seek out more value, better deals, spending less money, and yes they were clearing out closets. We saw numbers bounce back 40-50% growth year-on-year in June.”

The big question was whether that growth was a blip or there to say. He said it has continued into 2021 so far. “It’s a validation of what we see as long term trends driving the business.”

“The global demand for C2C and resale platforms is growing with renewed commitment in sustainable consumption, especially by younger millennials and Gen Z,” noted Seong-sook HAN, CEO of NAVER Corp., in a statement. “We agree with Wallapop’s philosophy of conscious consumption and are enthused to support their growth with our technology and develop international synergies.”

“Our economies are switching towards a more sustainable development model; after investing in Vestiaire Collective last year, wallapop is Korelya’s second investment in the circular economy, while COVID-19 is only strengthening that trend. It is Korelya’s mission to back tomorrow’s European tech champions and we believe that NAVER has a proven tech and product edge that will help the company reinforce its leading position in Europe,” added Fleur Pellerin, CEO of Korelya Capital.

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