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Uber lobbies for ‘Prop 22’-style gig work standards in the EU



Uber is shooting its shot at EU lawmakers as they dial up scrutiny of working conditions on gig platforms to decide whether new rules are needed to improve the lot of gig workers.

The ride-hailing and on-demand food delivery giant has published a white paper today in which it lobbies European policymakers for what it couches as a ‘new standard’ for platform work.

In the paper Uber talks of the need to expand some benefits to gig workers — seeking to eschew the nightmare scenario (for Uber) of having to fund the full suite of employment rights if its drivers and riders were reclassified as workers/employees.

It’s also trying to steer policy discussion away from issue of collective bargaining — with the paper floating the notion that app workers need more “meaningful” representation which they say is needed to reflect varying (aka individualized) needs and suggest could be achieved via a variety of channels of ongoing engagement between platform and worker.

Uber’s white paper is framed with the title: ‘A Better Deal’. And the ride-hailing giant is unquestionably after the best possible deal for its business as lawmakers look at whether new laws are needed to ensure a fairer deal for app-based workers.

The question EU lawmakers will need to pay close attention to in the coming months is exactly what kind of deal platforms workers are getting and, as they dig into the detail underlying tech giants’ PR, whether and how to create a legislative framework that improves conditions for armies of ‘contractors’ without undermining the much vaunted European social contract.

Uber has said it will push for a California style ‘Prop 22’ outcome globally — after successfully defeating a law to reclassify gig workers in its own back yard last year.

But the legal and social context is very different in Europe where many platforms have faced litigation on the issue of employment classification and courts have frequently found in workers’ favor.

On Friday Uber faces perhaps its biggest regional court test yet when the UK Supreme Court is expected to hand down its verdict on a long-running challenge by a group of former Uber drivers to its classification of them as self-employed. (The UK is now outside the EU but the outcome of the case is nonetheless likely to influence courts across the region.)

Greater clarification and enforcement of existing employment laws could be a way for policymakers in Europe to clamp down on platform giants that, critics say, have used self-serving classifications of algorithmic micromanagement as a high-tech hack of the legal system to profit at the expense of society (in lost tax revenue) and off of the labor of individual workers deprived of stable employment (and its associated rights).

At the same time, increasing consolidation in the on-demand space is concentrating the power of gig giants. So how can platform workers expect ‘meaningful’ representation or ‘improved’ conditions when a handful of mega platforms are busy closing off the possibility of something better by assimilating the competition — unless there’s a legislative intervention to protect them?

In a blog post accompanying Uber’s white paper today, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi reiterates the tech giant’s preferred ‘new standard’ for gig worker rights should be “grounded in the principles drivers and couriers say are most important to them: Flexibility and control over when and where they want to work, earning a decent wage, access to relevant benefits and protections, and meaningful representation”.

“To make a real difference, reform must also be industry-wide, requiring all platform companies to offer benefits and protections that are standardised across the sector, so that workers are protected no matter which apps they use,” Khosrowshahi goes on.

A universal standard for platform benefits may sound progressive but the notion of ‘relevant’ benefits for gig workers risks fixing this labor force to a floor far below agreed standards for employment — closing off any chance of a better deal for a class of workers who are subject to persistent, algorithmic management.

Such an industry-wide standard may also kill the imperative for gig platforms to compete with each other by offering workers a better deal. So policymakers need to tread carefully to avoid cementing a bad deal for workers they claim they want to help.

Uber’s white paper is pushing for some key principles at this point, rather than delineating a detailed ‘deal’ model for workers — which the company says would need to developed in consultation with stakeholders.

It also says it recognizes that platforms are likely to remain subject to a patchwork of national rules across the EU. And even if the Commission opts to legislate it would be years before such laws take effect — so case law will remain hugely important. But Uber is evidently keen to try to steer any overarching EU guidance which might exert top-down pressure on how Member States approach and apply policy in the area of gig work.

Platform giants have long sought to frame employment classification as a question of ‘flexibility vs benefits’ — claiming workers value flexibility (which they define as meaning ‘the ability to choose when to work’) above all else, even as they apply datafication and tracking to manage individuals’ service delivery via high tech micromanagement of a non-employed labor force.

Thing is: Sure you can log on to such a platform to work ‘when you choose’ but without legal protections such as a mandatory minimum wage there’s no guarantee that gig work ‘flexibility’ will sum to a liveable income for the individual. Which in turn means platform workers may not have defacto flexibility/freedom to choose when and how they work — unless they have other income to rely on.

The platforms are therefore often pushing a paradoxical defence of a business model that critics accuse of being abusive by design — with critical unions dubbing it exploitative and extractive of human labor, accusing platforms of circumventing the social contract and stability offered by traditional employment.

In a section of Uber’s white paper that argues why “employment is not the answer for platform workers” the tech giant points on cue to ‘flexibility’ — saying its model means that “drivers can connect freely to meet that demand or choose a quieter time of day if they wish”. Yet people who need to earn a living may not be able to ‘choose’ a quieter time of day if they’re being paid by the job, since doing so would reduce their earnings, so how much flexibility (or pay decency) does Uber really offer?

(Related: The large sums of money many of these gig giants have spent on trying to accelerate the development of automation technologies; ergo, money they save on not paying employment-linked taxes is being ploughed into trying to replace human workers entirely. So where’s the dignity in that?)

Decision time for the gig economy

In her December 2019 mission letter to the job commissioner, the European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen tasked the Nicolas Schmit with looking atways to improve the labour conditions of platform workers” — including by ensuring that enforcement of current laws is working — writing that: “Dignified, transparent and predictable working conditions are essential to our economic model.”

Soon after Schmit got his instructions, he sounded a balanced tone on the contentious issue of platform (profits) vs worker (rights), telling Euroactiv that he’s “not against platforms”, and sees them as “part of our new economy” — arguing too that it’s “important for Europe, not to lose the edge with this economy”.

But he also warned that the bloc must not allow high tech tools to be used to embed a new “underprivileged” worker underclass, saying: “We cannot have the economy of the 21st century with working conditions that are more comparable to those in the 19th century.”

Quite how the Commission will square the circle of ‘improving’ precarious platform work in policy terms remains to be seen. But the imperative for it to do good work here has only increased since Von der Leyen issued the instruction: The coronavirus pandemic has shone an excoriating spotlight on the risks — individual and societal — of the lack of a proper social safety net for platform workers, even as on-demand platform work (especially in areas like food and grocery delivery) has been fired up as a side effect of COVID-19.

Uber’s white paper riffs on the theme of the pandemic and the need for platform businesses to ‘go further’ in supporting workers — aka “to ensure independent workers have access to benefits and protections when they need them most”, as it puts it — even as it lobbies against providing all the rights and benefits of employment.

“It makes sense for them to be pushing for a minimum standard of benefits,” says Joe Aiston, senior associate in the employment group at international law firm Taylor Wessing, discussing Uber lobbying for a ‘new standard’ for gig work in the white paper. “As sort of appropriate minimums/protections. And perhaps things which are easier to give without significant disruption to the business model.

“Whereas having to reclassify everyone as employees or as workers would involve quite significant disruption to the business model — and is obviously going to result in significant extra cost for them as a business. Both from the point of view of things like minimum wage and holiday pay, but also the potential knock-on effect from a tax perspective as well.”

And whilst analysis of worker status does not automatically make those people employees for tax purposes,  Aiston says tests are “pretty similar”. Hence litigation over employment classification presents a clear risk to Uber’s tax status — and thus to its (potential) profitability.

On the issue of how to improve gig work, the European Commission has been gathering evidence as it works towards determining how best to proceed — including holding a conference on platform work last September. But big decisions are looming for EU lawmakers this year.

Later this month the Commission will launch a formal consultation of workers’ and employers’ representatives. And Uber’s white paper is clearly targeted at that process so we’re likely to see a number of self-interested attempts to influence platform working condition ‘improvements’ kick off in earnest.

Exactly what will be in play, policy wise, isn’t yet clear. But, last March, the Commission published a 285-page study in which it said the “main” challenges identified vis-a-vis the working conditions of platform workers include: Employment status; information available to the workers about their working conditions; dispute resolution; collective rights and non-discrimination. (So pretty much a full house, then.)

Dig into the actual study and it also discusses low remuneration and insecure income in plenty of detail and as ‘significant stressors’ for platform workers.

Pay certainly looks set to be a significant area of discussion/contention — not least because another of Von der Leyen’s instructions to Schmit asked him to put forward a legal instrument “to ensure that every worker in our Union has a fair minimum wage”.

It’s a common criticism of platform work that earnings may fall below the legal minimum for a worker (as pay by gig jobs typically only generate earnings during a job or on completion of a delivery, not for all the down time spent waiting to score a gig or pick up the goods). So if the EU’s fair minimum wage for ‘every worker’ ends up meaning ‘except platform workers’ that will sum to the Commission rubberstamping a tech-enabled “underprivileged” worker class — just as Schmit said it mustn’t.

Uber’s approach to the issue of pay in its white paper sidesteps the minimum wage issue by talking only of “fair and transparent earnings” (or “decent” pay) for platform workers.

The tech giant also says it’s “ready to lead the industry by advocating for changes to the way platform workers are paid” — though it makes it clear it won’t budge on remuneration without the sought for industry-wide enabling framework (“for flexible earning opportunities, with industry-wide benefits and protections that all platform companies must offer independent workers”).

“This could include universal standards, such as the Proposition 22 legislation recently introduced in California. Or it could be based on a European model of social dialogue, where platform workers, policy-makers and industry representatives work together to set earning principles for the industry,” Uber suggests.

“For example, in Italy the food delivery industry and the General Labour Union signed an agreement confirming the self employed status of couriers while requiring the industry to provide working standards for couriers, including provisions about earnings, injury, third-party insurance and training.”

“Critically, whatever the earning model, it must be based on an industry-wide level playing field to ensure all independent workers have a consistent earnings baseline, whichever platform they choose to work with,” Uber adds.

Clearly, then, the stakes are high all round on this one: For gig workers’ rights; for platform giants’ profits; and for EU lawmakers’ credibility in claiming a socially progressive agenda.

Although it’s not 100% certain the bloc will come with legislation at this point, either. A Commission spokeswoman suggested policymaking could be off the table if platforms and workers can come to a consensus agreement over what ‘better’ precarious work looks like. (But, yeah, good luck with that.)

The formal consultation of “social partners” that’s set to kick off later this month will consist of two stages, per the Commission spokeswoman.

“The first stage seeks their views on the need of a possible EU initiative to improve the working conditions of people working through platforms. In the second stage, they will be consulted on the possible content of such an initiative,” she said, noting that the Commission will “carefully assess social partners’ replies”.

“Provided social partners do not decide to negotiate an agreement among themselves, the Commission intends to put forward a legislative initiative by the end of 2021,” she added.

The spokeswoman confirmed that the policy areas where challenges had been identified — and where “improvements may be needed” — include “precarious working conditions, transparency and predictability of contractual arrangements, health and safety challenges and adequate access to social protection”.

Asked to confirm whether ‘precarious working conditions’ includes low and unstable renumeration she declined to specify, saying: “I’m afraid the [aforementioned list] is as far as we can go regarding the initiative at this stage.”

Employment status

Among a number of policy considerations summarized at the end of the Commission-instigated study into gig worker conditions is the statement that employment status remains a core challenge.

“Some platforms seem to operate at the margins between self-employed and employee, adjusting practices to maximise control over platform workers without unequivocally assuming the role of employers,” the report observes, noting the discrepancy between the (plodding) pace of case law clarifying where the employment classification line lies and the “fast-changing business practices characterising platform work”.

“Unless Member States widen the concept of employee or introduce a rebuttable presumption on the employment status of platform workers [through legislation or case law], platforms are likely to continue or expand their reliance on labour from self-employed individuals,” it continues.

“Reclassification of individual cases may happen on the basis of EU law or on national legislation, but it is unlikely that this will drastically reverse the main trend.”

“Actions aimed at protecting self-employed platform workers who are economically dependent on the platforms to ensure some minimum standards as to their ‘working conditions’ seem advisable,” the report also adds — while an associated ‘policy implication’ suggests that the EU and Member States “should consider clarifying which platform practices are incompatible with self-employment for platform workers”.

Clarification of self-employment tests — or of practices that should fail the test — is one way for pan-EU policymakers to move. Though, again, it remains to be seen which ideas the Commission will choose to champion as it takes more feedback on the gig economy.

On the employment classification case law front, a major decision is looming in the UK in relation to Uber’s ride-hailing business. A 2016 employment tribunal challenge to Uber’s classification drivers as self employed is headed for a final judgement on Friday — when the UK Supreme Court is expected to deliver its verdict on a case that has seen Uber lose a number of appeals over the last five years.

The Supreme Court ruling will likely have ramifications for the ~45,000 drivers who Uber says operate on its platform in London — and likely more widely across the UK.

It could also ripple out beyond that, given the active attention now being paid to improving the lot of gig workers by EU policymakers.

Last year a French court of last resort ruled that a former Uber driver should have been considered an employee instead of a self-employed partner.  It found there was a relationship of subordination between the company and the driver — flagging issues such as the inability of drivers to set prices; build their own customer base; or choose how to execute a task. “The driver participates in a managed transportation service and Uber unilaterally defines the operating terms,” it wrote.

However Uber denied the case set a precedent while also claiming to have made a number of changes to how its platform operates since the challenge was lodged in 2017 — suggesting drivers have been given more control over how they use Uber and now have greater “stronger social protections” (such as free accident insurance).

The case underlines the difficulties of relying on complaint-based case law to shape coherent outcomes for platform workers, plural.

The length of time such challenges take to reach a final outcome also give the platforms plenty of time to reconfigure their operations so they can at least try to claim specific findings no longer apply.

So legislation may indeed be required to lock in improvements for the conditions of gig workers.

“It’s true to say that things can change — so if Uber, following [the Supreme Court] decision materially change how the business model works then it’s possible they could then bring the drivers outside of the definition again,” says Aiston, although he points out the required changes in that context may, as it turns out, not be “acceptable” to Uber.

“We’ll have to wait to see what the variables the Supreme Court decides push it one way or the other but they would have to make a determination as to whether it works in the context of their business model to make such potentially significant changes to how things work,” he goes on, adding: “I suspect that they may already have been putting in place changes to how the business model works — perhaps to prepare for the judgement.

“So I guess the point there is the case law is so context-specific that that’s an argument to say that actually legislation and specific definitions are key rather than perhaps relying on very specific case law.”

The Commission’s study does also notes a number of challenges holding back policymaking in this area — even things as basic as clearly defining platform work; or gathering sufficiently comprehensive data to inform evidence-based policymaking.

“Once someone is classified as a worker, rather than an independent contractor, then that does potentially increased their ability and right to collectively bargain — so it’s another potential knock on effect should the Supreme Court decision go against Uber,” adds Aiston. “It might lead to the potential for a greater ability for their drivers/riders to collectively bargain so that will be something the relevant unions are looking out for keenly as well.”

Attempts to regulate and legislate are, meanwhile, in train in Europe at a national level. Such as in Spain where the government has sought for several years to crack down on platforms using so called ‘falsos autonomos‘ (aka falsely self-employed workers), and is in the process of reforming labor laws to reflect and capture platform work.

That national labor reform process could result in platforms being required to hire delivery workers, per recent reports — and such moves give platform giants added incentive to lobby the Commission for ‘more flexible’ pan-EU rules which may at least limit how far national law can travel to influence rules on the grounds elsewhere in the bloc (so limit potential damage to their business model).

The UK government has also suggested legislation is coming. It conducted a major review of modern working practices back in 2017 — which included looking at gig work. And among the Taylor Review’s recommendations was that the current (UK) legal classification of ‘worker’ should be updated to better reflect gig work — with the report suggesting ‘dependent contractor’ would be a more appropriate framing now — and also that greater focus should be paid to the control exercised over workers by platforms.

The review led to a government plan to bolster worker rights, as it was billed with much fanfare. However the ‘Good Work Plan’ reform package unveiled at the end of 2018 was instantly dismissed as weak and lacking substance by labor unions (vs the government trumpeting it as a massive expansion of workers rights). Not does it seem to have done much to address gig work specifically, as yet.

A commitment by the UK government as part of that plan in 2018 by the UK government to legislate to improve the clarity of employment status tests — in order to “reflect the reality of the modern working relationships” — has not amounted to anything yet.

The planned legislation may have been delayed as result of the pandemic. Aiston suggests it’s also possible the government is waiting for the Supreme Court judgement in the Uber tribunal case to inform its policy thinking. So for all Uber’s slick regional PR push to influence policymaking, it may have relatively little say in the matter vs European case law and the court of public opinion.

“If the Supreme Court judgement does against [Uber] in the sense that the drivers were workers I think that’s probably going to make things at least a bit more difficult for them. Because in the UK at least they’re going to have decide that well either we accept that all drivers are workers or — depending on reasons given for the judgement — can we adjust our business model to bring it away from that analysis,” says Aiston.

“They may be keen to do the latter, on the basis that they are obviously keen to keep people being self-employed rather than workers but I guess from a PR perspective that might not look great for them to do that. Once a judgement has been made that they are workers, one view is that you just need to accept that now and move on and acknowledge that they have those rights.”

He points to examples of gig economy companies trying to ‘pre-empt or negate’ the risk of reclassification of ‘self-employed’ contractors as workers by putting in place benefits packages — such as Uber offering free or low cost insurances to drivers and riders in Europe — “to show that they are a ‘good’ company and they want to look after people”.

Such efforts fall short of the suite of rights reclassified platform workers could get so there’s more movement that could happen here — and may have to in order to keep the travelling public on side.

“They tend not to go to the extreme and say well we’ll acknowledge that they’re workers and therefore they’re entitled to minimum wage and their rest breaks and that kind of thing. So it’s something to look out for as well with these gig economy businesses,” Aiston suggests. “I think it will become more competitive from that perspective.

“Whether or not they acknowledge that people are workers is one thing but I think you can see a definite move towards gig economy businesses realizing that they have a duty to look after people… Obviously that serves a dual purpose of people getting some benefits but also it being a positive thing from a PR perspective and the point of view of the public view of these companies.”

It’s also worth noting that UK employment law is more nuanced than some national employment law — as it does already recognize the concept of a ‘worker’ (i.e, not an employee and not self-employed) — while Aiston notes some other European countries (and also the US) have a more limited set of classifications (i.e. employed vs self employed).

“European courts will look to things like the Supreme Court decision in the UK. And whilst they’re not bound by that decision you can imagine that the way that this swings will have at least some kind of knock-on effect to how any similar judgements are taken across Europe,” he suggests. “The interesting thing to bear in mind is that in the UK we have this middle classification of a worker. Whereas in most European countries you’re either self employed, a contractor or an employee. So there’s a bigger dichotomy elsewhere in Europe.”

“In a way the UK’s in a better position because we have this middle ground. And some people might say that has made the UK courts be in a position more easily to reclassify — assuming that the Supreme Court goes the same was as the court of appeal did [in the Uber employment tribunal case], which was to state that these drivers were in fact workers. So it’s important to note there’s a difference there,” he adds.

“In the UK you can understand why it has perhaps been a bit more easy for a court to make a decision that the driver should fit within this middle category where they attract some protections but not all of them.”

If EU policymakers were to decide to create a pan-EU standard akin to ‘worker’ that would present a huge opportunity/risk for Uber et al — with the chance to influence key parameters in their interests as a means of reducing the threat employment litigation poses to their core business model (and staving off a larger tax bill).

Though there will clearly be costs involved in an expansion of the level of protection offered to gig workers. The question for tech giants would be how much they can shrink those costs — aka what’s the bare minimum in ‘relevant’ standards they can sell across Europe?

Alternatively, EU lawmakers could seek to stipulate and enforce a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for platforms vis-a-vis workers — as a way to establish appropriately ‘fair’ operational employment limits — which in turn might have the potential to be disruptive to the business model of on-demand giants whose profits (often still theoretical at this point) depend on access to plentiful, low cost labor supplied by lots of people they claim not to employ.

Setting a list of specific operational requirements for platforms is exactly what the Commission has proposed in an overarching platform regulation that EU lawmakers set out in December (the Digital Markets Act) — in that case aimed at intermediating platforms which have the most market power to push for fair dealing with other businesses (and foster digital competition).

Something similar for gig platforms that aims to ensure a fair deal for workers is at least conceivable.

It would surely be preferable to Uber et al vs being legally required to put hundreds of thousands of on-demand workers on the payroll. But it would also put an end to the free ride these giants used to scale in the first place.

So it may not be the end of the road for the platform economy in Europe but a period of considerable adjustable looks inevitable — and business models will need to adapt to changing (and/or better enforced) employment laws.

Aiston says organisations will have to weigh up the pros and cons of adjusting their business models — with a view to either seeking to keep arrangements away from employee or worker status (but potentially reducing how much control they can apply, e.g. over price); or to accept people are workers and adapt the business model and pricing structure accordingly (such as by, say, restricting the ability to work for rival platforms).

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

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How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it



Our new podcast Found is now available, and the first episode features guest Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of Incredible Health. Abuzeid’s story of founding and building Incredible Health, a career platform for healthcare professionals focusing specifically on nurses, is all about a focused entrepreneur building a unique skill set, and acquiring the experience necessary to create a world-leading solution.

Abuzeid went to medical school and acquired her MD, but decided before residency to instead go get an MBA from Wharton, in order to pursue her dream of entrepreneurship, inspired by two generations of entrepreneurs in the family that preceded her. After eventually making her way to Silicon Valley and working in a couple of other startups in the healthcare space, Abuzeid took important lessons away from those experiences about what not to do when running your own company, and embarked on building her own with co-founder Rome Portlock, now the company’s CTO.

Incredible Health is tackling a huge challenge — the shortfall of availability of skilled nurses, and the lack of mature, sophisticated career resources to help those nurses in their professional life. COVID-19 threw those issues into stark relief, and Incredible Health adjusted its game plan to adapt to its users’ needs. Abuzeid tells us all about how she made those calls, and also how she convinced venture investors to come along for the ride.

We hope you enjoy this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice. We’d love to hear your feed back, too — either on Twitter or via email, and tune in weekly for more episodes.

Found is hosted by Darrell Etherington and Jordan Crook, and is produced, mixed and edited by Yashad Kulkarni. TechCrunch’s audio products are managed by Henry Pickavet, and Bryce Durbin created the show’s artwork. Found published weekly on Friday afternoons, and you can find past episodes on TechCrunch here.

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This Week in Apps: Facebook’s other Clubhouse rival, Apple details ATT, App Store trial nears



Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here:

This week we’re looking into the upcoming Apple lawsuit with Epic Games over App Store fees, the soon-to-launch game changer that is App Tracking Transparency and Facebook’s latest attempt to take on Clubhouse, among other things.

Top Stories

Epic vs Apple trial nears

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

The Epic Games versus Apple trial is nearing launch. The trial, which begins May 3 and is expected to drag on for weeks, will see the Fortnite maker attempting to argue that Apple’s control over the App Store — and the 30% commission it requires on in-app purchases — represents anti-competitive behavior from a monopoly that requires regulation under antitrust law. Apple, meanwhile, feels confident that it can demonstrate its not a monopoly as it faces competition across the market, not just in its App Store. It will also likely point to the commission decreases it recently made in the wake of the increased regulatory scrutiny. Apple now takes a smaller 15% cut from developers making less than $1 million in revenues.

New filings this week detail Epic’s long-term program “Project Liberty,” which describes how Epic planned its antitrust battle by forcing app stores to reject Fortnite for circumventing their payment mechanisms. A filing from Epic also references comments by Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddie Cue, senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi and Apple Fellow Phil Schiller that talk about how Apple locks users into its ecosystem with its services, including iMessage. Epic also argues that Apple uses security as a “pretext” for its commissions — even as a recent series of allegations (and threat of a lawsuit) from app developer Kosta Eleftheriou have demonstrated that Apple’s vetting process is failing to stop massive scams. Epic also says that allowing Apple to serve customers’ refund requests leads to fraud because it doesn’t have the same visibility into the developer’s content that the developer itself does.

Apple shares more ATT details

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 03: The Apple logo is displayed on the back of an iPhone on August 3, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

With the public release of iOS 14.5, which is expected soon, Apple will be shaking up the app economy with the launch of its App Tracking Transparency framework, or ATT. This requires iOS apps to begin prompting users for permission to track their users’ activity, instead of just quietly doing so — generally without the user’s informed consent. Apple has said developers can explain in this prompt why they’re asking for this permission — for example, because they want to serve more personalized ads, perhaps. Tech giants like Facebook and Google, as well as many other ad-supported apps (and particularly social media apps), will be impacted by the change. Some have even gone so far as to try to find workarounds using non-IDFA methods, it’s been reported (IDFA being the current system that assigns a unique advertising ID to each device that is then tracked across the apps and websites a user visits). It was revealed last week that Snapchat had investigated an IDFA alternative known as probabilistic matching, but claims it was just a “test.” Meanwhile, China’s largest tech companies — including Baidu, Tencent and ByteDance — have been exploring a state-backed IDFA alternative CAID.

This week, Apple made it clear that “no tracking” without permission means just that. It says that if a user opts out of any IDFA-tracking via the pop-up, that means the developer doesn’t have permission to track using any other sort of identifiers either — like hashed email addresses or whatever other workaround developers come up with.

Facebook tries another Clubhouse rival

Image Credits: Hotline

Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, this week launched its latest experiment, Hotline, into public beta testing. The web-based application could be described as a mashup of Instagram Live and Clubhouse, as it allows creators to speak to an audience who can then ask questions through either text or audio. However, unlike Clubhouse, creators can opt to turn their cameras on for the event, instead of being audio-only. Currently, users sign in with Twitter and then verify their phone number to authenticate with the app. They can then type in their question to submit it to the speaker, who pulls them “on stage” to discuss. For now, the participants were audio-only and represented by a profile icon, but settings suggest that Hotline will test video for users in the future.

As the questions are asked, users can react with emoji, including clapping hands, fire, heart, laughter, surprise and thumbs up. And most importantly, unlike Clubhouse, Hotline events are recorded. Creators get both an audio and video recording that they could edit and upload elsewhere, including on other social networks. Because of its use of video, upvoted questions and recording, the app has a different vibe than Clubhouse — it feels more like a virtual event than a more casual space. Facebook is catering to this audience, too, by seeking out creators who are focused on doling out professional advice, it says.

Of note, Hotline is being led by Eric Hazzard, who joined Facebook when it acquired his app tbh, a positivity-focused Q&A app.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Still more betas. Apple this week released its seventh betas for iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5 and other platforms, including Apple TV and Apple Watch — iOS 14.5 brings the rollout of App Tracking Transparency, which is why Apple is probably taking its time with this one.

iOS 14 adoption has now surpassed 90% according to data from Mixpanel. In December, 81% of phones were running iOS 14, now 90.45% are. Another 5.07% of users are running iOS 13, while 4.48% are running iOS 12 or older versions.

Apple has been spotted testing tags in the App Store that will help guide users to more precise search results. The test, first reported by MacRumors, had users encounter tags at the top of App Store search results when searching for popular terms like “photos” or “wallpaper,” that could help narrow results. Some users were running the iOS 14.5 beta when they saw tags, but others were not. It’s unclear if or when tags will launch to the wider public.

Apple opens up its Find My app to third-party products and launches a new app to test them. The company has still not launched its own AirTags, a lost-item finder similar to Tile. Instead, it’s smartly positioning the Find My app as a platform anyone can plug into, in order to assuage anti-competitive concerns. The first items that will plug into Find My include VanMoof’s S3 and X3 e-bikes, Belkin’s SoundForm Freedom True Wireless Earbuds and the Chipolo ONE Spot tracker (a Tile rival).

However, one big name is notably missing from the lineup, and that’s AirTags’ biggest competitor, Tile itself. Tile doesn’t want to hand over the direct customer relationship it has by way of its Tile app just to be included in Find My. And some have suggested Apple is propping up the Chipolo tracker to counter any arguments from Tile that it’s being anti-competitive with the launch of AirTags when they finally arrive.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple updated its App Store Connect and Apple Music for Artists app icons to look more like the design choices used on macOS Big Sur. That’s leading to speculation that iOS 15 could also adopt the look of Big Sur when it comes to design.

Apple details its App Store takedowns in new transparency report. Apple’s latest transparency report offers information about app takedowns due to requests from government authorities due to suspected violations of local laws. Apple says it complies with these requests where it’s legally required to do so. These requests, however, are not focused on Apple’s own editorial guidelines, which prohibit content that Apple itself chooses not to host.

Platforms: Google

The new Google Play Store design arrives, killing off the hamburger menu for good. The design is rolling out to Android devices. An in-app message tells you that those menu items have been moved to your profile icon, which, when tapped, brings up a condensed menu. The Settings menu was also updated. Some have complained the changes are making menu items and options harder to find. The Play Store hadn’t been updated significantly since 2019.

Google announced a new app review process across AdMob and Ad Manager which will evaluate a mobile app’s inventory quality before allowing unrestricted ad serving. The process will give publishers feedback on their apps’ approval status so they can resolve issues that could lead to policy violations. Google says the new app reviews are being rolled out gradually in 2021 with two features: app readiness and app claiming. The former will require publishers to link apps they want to monetize with one supported app store, so their app can then be reviewed. The process will check the app source, publisher’s ownership and policy compliance. App Claiming will provide a list of apps that are being monetized with their ad code but aren’t yet on their AdMob or Ad Manager account.

Image Credits: Google

Android Auto apps can now be launched into production, Google announced this week, following months of testing. That means developers can now publish apps for navigation, parking and charging to Google Play without needing to sign up for a beta program.

Image Credits: Google

Android 12 may make it easier for third-party launchers to operate, as it will allow them access to perform universal device searches. The change was spotted in a new API (AppSearchManager API) by the developer of the Niagara Launcher.

All of Google’s flagship iOS apps have now adopted Apple’s new privacy nutrition labels, as Google Photos was finally updated on Tuesday.


Image Credits: App Annie

Consumers now average 4.2 hours per day in apps, up 30% from 2019. In the first quarter of 2021, the daily time spent in apps surpassed four hours in the U.S., Turkey, Mexico and India for the first time, the report notes. Of those, India saw the biggest jump as consumers there spent 80% more time in smartphone apps in the Q1 2021 versus the first quarter of 2019.

45% of apps used in Q1 2021 were games and 36% of gamers said they were now playing more mobile games compared to before the pandemic, AdColony said. In the first two weeks of 2021, the top 10 casual games saw 80 million downloads.


WhatsApp now allows business owners to manage their catalogs through the web and on desktop. The catalog feature was introduced in the messaging app in 2019 to allow businesses to better manage their inventory. To date, more than 8 million business catalogs are now live on the platform.


Free trading app Robinhood says crypto trading has spiked to 9.5 million customers in the first quarter. That’s up from the 1.7 million customers who traded crypto in the 2020 fourth quarter.

Private messaging app Signal began testing payments in the U.K. using the cryptocurrency MobileCoin (MOB). The beta program will allow users to access a new Signal Payments feature in the app where they can then link a MobileCoin wallet after buying the cryptocurrency on the exchange FTX. Once set up, you can then send MOB to anyone else on the app who also has a linked wallet.


Twitter is said to have discussed a $4 billion acquisition of hot new audio app Clubhouse, Bloomberg reported. TechCrunch also confirmed the talks, but understands they’re no longer taking place. Bloomberg had earlier reported Clubhouse is now looking to raise a round, also at a $4 billion valuation.

TikTok announces six new interactive music effects to keep its audience engaged as competition heats up, with tech giants Facebook, YouTube and Snap all releasing TikTok clones. The first effect is Music Visualizer, which runs real-time beat tracking to animate a retro greenscreen landscape. In less than a day since its debut, over 28,000 videos had used the effect.

TikTok rolls out a new feature, auto captions, to make its short-form videos more accessible to hard of hearing and deaf. Creators can enable the feature during editing, which could also be useful for times when you want to listen to TikTok privately but don’t have your headphones.

Image Credits: TikTok

A group of lawmakers wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to press the company for information about its plan to create a curated version of Instagram for children under 13. Facebook already offers an under-13 app, Messenger Kids, and its rival TikTok offers an age-gated experience as well for under-13 users. Lawmakers expressed skepticism that Facebook would keep children’s data private.

Reddit drops support for iOS 12 and lower, given that iOS adoption for later versions now reaches the vast majority of users.

Tim Cook talked about the banned right-wing app Parler in a wide-ranging interview on The NYT’s “Sway” podcast. He made a straightforward case as to why the app needed to be removed, but also said he hoped they’d try to return. “I hope that they come back on. Because we work hard to get people on the store, not to keep people off the store,” Cook said. “And so, I’m hoping that they put in the moderation that’s required to be on the store and come back, because I think having more social networks out there is better than having less,” he added.


WhatsApp was spotted testing a feature that would allow users to migrate their chat history between devices (iOS and Android, that is).

Group chat app Discord said it banned over 2,000 extremist communities in the second half of last year — nearly double the number it banned during the first half of the year, when the Capitol riot took place. Around 1,500 of the communities were first detected by the company. Discord had reportedly been talking to Microsoft about an acquisition.

Streaming & Entertainment

Spotify launched (but didn’t initially announce…until a slew of media reports forced their hand) a voice command feature, “Hey Spotify.” The feature lets you call up artists, songs, albums and playlists by name after first opting in and enabling the microphone permission. This will allow Spotify to listen and record your voice data once it hears the wake words, “Hey Spotify.” The company wouldn’t answer questions about the feature, which seems to indicate the rumors that Spotify is readying the launch of its in-car hardware, Car Thing, may actually be true.

Image Credits: Spotify screenshot iOS

Clubhouse launches payments so creators can make money from their shows. Users will be able to send money to favorite creators, which Clubhouse says it’s not taking a cut from — hoping to avoid the Apple tax on in-app purchases through the donations carve-out Apple agreed to for Tencent in 2018. Creators will have to enable the new virtual tip jar feature in order to accept payments.

YouTube Music’s mobile app is getting a design refresh. The app has begun testing new iconography that matches the update the YouTube mobile app received last year, when it dropped the gray icons for the more visually distinct ones.

The YouTube Kids app has rolled out to 11 new markets, including Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay.

As rumors about Spotify’s launch of “Car Thing” swirl, Amazon Music debuts a “Car Mode” that makes its music app easier to use while driving, with features like bigger text, bigger buttons and even Alexa built in — the latter countering Spotify’s launch of “Hey Spotify” voice commands.


Image Credits: Epic Games/Houseparty

Fortnite users can now livestream gameplay to Houseparty’s social app, which Epic Games (Fortnite’s maker) also owns. To use the new feature, the Fortnite player will need to have enabled Fortnite Mode Streaming and be connected to Houseparty. When they begin to stream their gameplay, their friends on Houseparty will be notified that their game feeds are now available to watch. The addition follows Houseparty’s launch of a “Fortnite Mode” last November, which added a video chat feature to Fortnite where players could see live feeds from their friends while gaming, powered by Houseparty.

Google opened up applications for its 2021 Change The Game Design Challenge, which will again be virtual. Participants who are chosen will be invited to an online game development workshop hosted by Google’s partner, Girls Make Games. The workshop will offer four sessions, kicking off in June and running through the end of the summer. At the end of the workshop, participants will have learned skills needed to create a playable game, no coding experience required.

Apple was hit with a class action lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which claims that Apple runs an “unlicensed casino” due to its hosting of free-to-play casino games. Though the games use virtual currency, the lawsuit notes that users can buy more coins with real money. The suit says this violates the anti-gambling laws of at least 25 U.S. states.

Health & Fitness

French startup Nabla launched its new app focused on women’s health, allowing women to chat with practitioners, access community content, centralize all their medical data and, soon, schedule telemedicine appointments. The startup has raised $20.2 million for its app and has a team of doctors on board to answer user questions.

Government & Policy

Apple must now show a set of Russian-made apps during iPhone setup, according to a new law that went into effect in early April. Apps getting a boost from the suggestions include, OK Live, VK and others. The apps are not being pre-installed as it turns out, but are being offered for download during the final step of the setup process.

Security & Privacy

Facebook is facing questions from the EU’s data protection regulator over the 2019 data breach that exposed, among other things, the emails and phone numbers of more than 500 million Facebook users. The breach was reported last weekend by Business Insider, leading to concerns. Facebook says the data dump was related to a vulnerability it had fixed back in August 2019. It later explained that the data was scraped from user profiles using a contact importer feature before Facebook made changes to the tool to prevent abuse.

Funding and M&A (and IPOs)

💰 Plaid competitor TrueLayer, which works with fintech apps like Revolut and Freetrade, raised $70 million to expand its service internationally.

💰 Indian investment app Groww raised $83 million at an over $1 billion valuation for its app aimed at millennial investors. Tiger Global led the round, and existing investors Sequoia Capital India, Ribbit Capital, YC Continuity and Propel Venture Partners participated. The app has over 15 million users, two-thirds who are investing for the first time.

🤝 Quiq acquires Snaps to create a combined customer messaging platform. Both startups help businesses communicate with businesses through text messaging and other messaging apps. But despite similarities, the two didn’t overlap much as Quiq had focused on customer service messaging and Snaps on marketing communications. Deal terms were not revealed, but Snaps had raised $13 million.

💰 Note-taking mobile app Mem raised $5.6 million from Andreessen Horowitz and emerged from stealth. Its app lets users quickly jot down thoughts without worrying about organizing them. The app allows for tagging users and topics, setting reminders and more.

💰 Indian social network ShareChat raised $502 million in Series E funding led by Tiger Global, valuing its business at $2.1 billion — up from $650 million last year. Snap and existing investors Twitter and Lightspeed Venture Partners also participated. The six-year-old startup has raised $765 million to date and claims to reach over 160 million users.

📈 Mobile game unicorn AppLovin is targeting a $30 billion valuation in its IPO. The Palo Alto-based business sold a majority stake to private equity firm KKR & Co. Inc, and is now hoping to raise as much as $2.13 billion in its IPO by selling 25 million shares for between $75 and $85 per share.

🤝 Saving and investing app Acorns acquired AI-powered startup Pillar, which helps people manage their student loan debt. Pillar launched in 2019 with $5.5 million in seed funding led by Kleiner Perkins and grew its business to manage over $500 million worth of student loan debt across 15,000 borrowers. Acorns will add Pillar to one of its monthly subscription plans in time.

💰 Berlin-based Charles raised €6.4 million to bring “conversational commerce” to WhatsApp. The startup helps businesses sell on WhatsApp and other chat apps by connecting them with shop and CRM systems, including Shopify, SAP and HubSpot.

💰 Design startup Canva, which offers its service across both web and mobile, raised $71 million more in funding, valuing its business at $15 billion. The company had just raised $60 million at a $6 million valuation in 2020.The round was co-led by Christian Jensen, a partner at Dragoneer. Other investors included T. Rowe Price, Skip Capital and Blackbird Ventures.

🤝 Online lender Avant acquired fintech startup Zero Financial and its mobile neobank Level. Deal terms weren’t disclosed but were a mixture of cash and stock. Avant has raised more than $600 million in equity. The company plans to leverage the deal to deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, it says.

💰 App Store optimization tool provider AppTweak raised $22 million in Series B funding from Groupe Rossel. The company now tracks 3 million keywords daily and grew revenues 950% between 2016-2019, it says. Its tools are used by companies including Amazon, Jam City, Zynga, HBO Max, Adobe and Yelp.

💰 London mobile game studio Tripledot Studios raised $78 million in its first institutional round from Eldridge, Access Industries and Lightspeed Venture Partners. The studio’s games, which include classic titles like Solitaire and Blackjack, have an active user base of 11 million, up from 6 million six months ago. Its team hails from Facebook, King, Peak Games and Product Madness.

💰 Indian conversational messaging platform Gupshup raised $100 million from Tiger Global, valuing its business at $1.4 billion. The company had experimented with other business models over the years, including a messaging app and enterprise messaging before landing on its current suite of solutions for building messaging bots, APIs, a scripting engine and other tools that need to message customers on mobile devices. Its tools support sending messages via text and RCS as well as WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, Signal, Twitter, Slack, Skype and its own messaging channel. Gupshup currently delivers 6+ billion messages per month.


Halo AR

Image Credits: LightUp

This relatively new AR app lets you add AR to anything — a textbook, a magazine cover, a piece of paper, a photo or any other flat real-world object. To use Halo AR, you first select the object and snap a photo, then choose which photo, video or 3D model you want to overlay on top of it. Teachers can use the app to “tag” their course materials with AR links of sorts to immersive content or videos. Or you could use it for fun to create a scavenger hunt in the house for the kids. The app is a free download in the Education category on iOS and Android.


Image Credits: SmartGym

This popular gym app for Apple devices, and one of Apple’s favorite Apple Watch apps of the year, got a big update this week. The new version of SmartGym more than doubles the number of exercises, growing the database of 290 exercises with the addition of over 330 more — including for those who work out at home with bands, resistance loops, TRX and more. The app’s AI Smart Trainer can then use these new exercises to make its personalized recommendations for you. There are new pre-made workouts for boxing, martial arts and even ultimate frisbee in the updated app.


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China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B



Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its tech industry. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba. SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its merchants to sell on one of the two main e-commerce sites in China instead of letting them choose freely.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with fines for violating anti-competition practices. The meager sums of these punishments were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that the antitrust campaign is getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If passed, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

This is a developing story.

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