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This Week in Apps: Google Play slashes commissions, Apple sued over scammy apps, YouTube launches a TikTok clone in the US

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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, there was a lot of headline-making app ecosystem news, including Google’s impactful decision to drop its Play Store commissions, an App Store lawsuit over scammy apps with fake ratings, battles over Apple’s App Tracking Transparency and the arrival of a notable new feature on YouTube — a TikTok rival called Shorts.

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Developer sues Apple over lost revenue due to App Store scams

Apple app store iOS

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Kosta Eleftheriou, a co-founder of the Fleksy keyboard app, has been raising awareness about App Store scams in recent weeks, after his own app was targeted by copycat subscription scammers leveraging fake ratings and reviews to gain traction. This week, Eleftheriou filed a lawsuit that attempts to hold Apple accountable for his own app’s lost revenue, saying that Apple promises developers a safe and trustworthy marketplace, but then allows these scammers to operate to the detriment of legitimate apps like his own. Though some news articles positioned the case as some sort of antitrust lawsuit, it’s really more focused on scammers and the accountability Apple has for how its App Store operates, which apps are listed and how well it’s managed and policed. Eleftheriou is asking Apple to compensate him for his lost revenue and other damages as a result of Apple’s ill-run app marketplace, as well as what he claims are unfair App Review rejections.

Google Play drops commissions to 15% on some earnings

Google Play Store screen

Google Play Store screen

Google has followed Apple’s lead in reducing commissions for the Google Play store. But in its case, it has dropped commissions from 30% to 15% on developers’ first $1 million in revenue. Apple, by comparison, starts charging 30% once the developer tops $1 million. Google said 99% of developers who sell goods and services through the Play Store will see a 50% reduction in fees. According to App Annie data, very few Google Play developers make more than $1 million — in fact, only 2,035 developers do on Google Play, compared with 3,611 on iOS. To put this in perspective in terms of revenue, developers making up to $1 million in consumer spend only comprised 5% of total Google Play consumer spend in 2020, the firm noted.

Apple’s ATT scores a win in France

Apple fended off an attempt by advertisers in France who wanted to derail the IDFA change in iOS, which will require users’ permission in order to track them. The complaint had attempted to contrast Apple’s ATT (App Tracking Transparency) requirements for third parties with Apple’s own, where its first-party apps are allow to track by default for the purpose of personalizing ads in various Apple apps. France’s competition regulator decided Apple’s plans “don’t appear to be abusive” and said it can’t intervene just because some apps may see a negative impact. But the authority did say it will investigate Apple further to determine if any of its changes are “self-preferencing.”

YouTube launches its TikTok rival in the U.S.

Image Credits: YouTube

The short-form video experience known as YouTube Shorts first launched in India, where TikTok has been banned, in September. It’s now coming to the U.S. in its first major expansion. The feature, still in beta, offers a very TikTok-like experience both in terms of recording content and viewing. Users can tap to record video segments for up to 60-second long videos, and use a small handful of editing features like text captions, countdown timers and speed controls. Meanwhile, viewing the videos is also presented in a TikTok-like format with vertical feeds of video where you can double-tap to like, duck into comments or tap on hashtags or sounds to participate in trends.

YouTube believes the feature has potential because it’s connected to the larger YouTube ecosystem, including YouTube Music and the main platform itself — you can subscribe to YouTube channels right from Shorts, for example. But Shorts lacks a lot of what makes TikTok successful for the time being, like its numerous AR effects and editing tools, sound sync and its ability for creators to react and respond to other videos through stitches and duets.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple will allow the Russian government to pre-install apps on the iPhone starting on April 1, 2021. In accordance with a new law, Apple users will be shown a dialog box at setup that prompts them to install web browsers, antivirus, messenger and email apps. Users can choose to deselect these apps or delete them from the device later.

Report claims Apple may soon deliver standalone iOS security updates. According to code found in the latest iOS 14.5 beta, Apple could be preparing to introduce a way to update older iPhones with critical security updates without requiring users to download new versions of iOS. This could be helpful in patching older devices where users don’t download iOS updates for fear of slowing down their phone.

Apple says the App Store now supports 300K jobs in the U.K., up 10% YoY, as well as 250K jobs in Germany and another 250K in France. The figures were released in response to increased antitrust scrutiny by regulators, as a way to demonstrate the App Store’s contribution to local economies.

Platforms: Google

Image Credits: App Annie

App Annie data shows how few Google Play developers will pay the higher 30% commission after the policy change, announced this week. Google says developers’ first $1 million in revenue will be commissioned at 15%, not 30%. This covers the vast majority of the Play Store’s developer base, as only 2,035 developers make $1 million or more.

Google updates its People API, which will replace the Contacts API being deprecated on June 15, 2021. The new API will now support two new endpoints for batch mutates and Contacts searches, the company said.

Google updates its parental controls for Android, Family Link. The updates acknowledge that not all screen time is the same, by allowing parents to set some apps — like those used for virtual school — as “always allowed” and not counting toward daily limits. It also updated reporting to better show where kids were spending time outside of these necessary apps.

Google is now allowing third-party developers to build Tiles for Wear OS smartwatches. Tiles are small, fast-loading experiences that can deliver specific, timely information users need, but can be tapped to open a related app on the watch or phone for a deeper experience.

Image Credits: Google

E-commerce

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said his company has been preparing for the Apple IDFA changes by investing in more commerce products on its own platforms, like Facebook and Instagram Shops. In a Clubhouse session on Thursday, he announced Facebook has 1 million active Shops which are used by 250 million people every month.

Social

Twitter is testing a way for users to watch YouTube videos from within the home timeline directly on iOS devices, instead of being redirected to YouTube. Finally! The test was made possible through YouTube’s iFrame Player API, which Twitter gained access to.

TikTok will no longer allow users to opt out of personalized advertising starting on April 15th. The app alerted users to the change via a notice that appeared on screen at launch. This means uses will see ads based on what they watch and engage with on TikTok.

TikTok may add a group chats feature sometime early this year, according to Reuters. The feature is already a part of the Chinese version of the TikTok app, Douyin, and would make the app more social.

Instagram adds new teen safety tools as competition with TikTok heats up. TikTok has been making its app safer for teens and this week Instagram followed suit — but instead of locking down teens accounts by default, it made it more difficult for adult predators to reach teens on Instagram, through a variety of alerts and blocking features.

Leaked recordings detail conservative donor Rebekah Mercer’s role at right-wing social app Parler, where she joined meetings to rally employees to fight against the shut down of free speech, and other matters, Bloomberg reports. 

Facebook is preparing to add an age-gate to Instagram that would allow for a curated, and likely COPPA-compliant, under 13 experience, according to a report from BuzzFeed. TikTok today does the same thing, following its FTC fines. Instagram could be doing the same to ward off any FTC investigation into underage use of its app as well as to better cater to the younger users who are already on Instagram today.

Messaging

China banned Signal. The encrypted messaging app became unavailable on the mainland on March 16, following a ban of the Signal website the day prior. The app had been one of the few Western social networks that was accessible in China without a VPN.

Telegram is working on an audio experience that allows users to create voice chats in Telegram Channels that you can join either with your personal profile or channel profile. The feature is in beta testing and no official announcement has been made.

Streaming & Entertainment

Clubhouse hires Instagram alum Fadia Kader as its new head of Media Partnerships and Creators. The hire follows that of OWN and Netflix alum Maya Watson to serve as head of Global Marketing, and points to an increased interest in establishing Clubhouse in the world of media. Kader’s background is in music and tech, having led music partnerships at Twitter, and having worked at Def Jam.

Clubhouse promises its accelerator participants either brand deals or $5,000 per month during its three-month program. The company plans to work with around 20 creators to help them produce, book guests and promote their shows on the platform, as well as source brand deals.

Clubhouse is also currently being investigated by France’s privacy watchdog, CNIL, in an attempt to determine whether or not GDPR will apply to the app and how it’s complying with EU rules. Germany’s regulator last month was doing something similar, as it began looking into how the app was protecting the privacy of European users and their contacts.

Premium content, entertainment and streaming have helped drive up the prices of in-app purchases (IAPs). In 2020, the median price for IAPs among the top non-game apps was $5.99, up from $3.99 in 2017. The median price of subscription IAPs alone, meanwhile, has remained flat at $9.99 over the past four years, Sensor Tower found.

AT&T will begin counting HBO Max streams through the app against data limits. The company owns HBO via WarnerMedia and was previously exempting streams from data caps, but says a California net neutrality law will now no longer allow it to do so. AT&T spoke out against a patchwork of state regulations for net neutrality, saying they will create roadblocks to pro-consumer solutions.

Gaming

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

U.S. mobile puzzle game spending jumped 30% YoY to $4.6 billion in 2020, per a Sensor Tower report. The pandemic likely contributed to the rise, with top game Candy Crush Saga pulling in $643 million following by Homescapes and Gardenscapes.

Health & Fitness

Apple Maps has been updated with COVID-19 vaccine locations in the U.S. Apple is sourcing data from VaccineFinder, an initiative led by Boston Children’s Hospital, which is also one of the sources Google Maps is using. Apple is allowing healthcare providers, labs and other businesses to submit their information about vaccine locations.

Facebook will label all COVID-19 vaccine posts with a pointer to official, authoritative sources of information across Facebook and Instagram. It also said it will reduce the distribution of content from users who repeatedly violated policies on vaccine misinformation or who shared debunked claims, as well as any claims that fact checkers say are “Missing Context.”

Security & Privacy

Facebook expands support for security keys to mobile users on iOS and Android. The social network has supported the use of security keys, which generate encrypted, one-time security codes, for desktop users since 2017.

California passed new regulations that ban so-called “dark patterns,” or designs used by websites and apps to frustrate or trick users into doing things they wouldn’t normally do — like subscribing to a service they didn’t want or opting-in to sharing their data with the company, for example.

An iPhone app privacy report from cloud storage company pCloud showed how much personal data is being accessed by apps. The apps collecting the most data were Facebook and Instagram, while Klarna and Grubhub tied for second place, followed by Uber and Uber Eats.

Big tech, including Apple and Google, are ramping up their lobbying in U.S. state capitals, reports The WSJ, as a number of bills that could regulate their industries are arriving in state legislatures. One of these is an app store payments bill that is going to be debated in Arizona’s Senate in the next several weeks. If passed, developers would be able to use their own payment systems for in-app purchases instead of Apple’s and Google’s systems. Other legislation is being proposed in states including Maryland and Virginia.

A government-backed consortium of Chinese companies introduced a new method for tracking iPhone users as an alternative to IDFA (paywalled source: FT). The system could be a workaround for Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, as it won’t require user permission. Tencent and ByteDance are reportedly testing the system, known as CAID.

Google finally rolls out iOS privacy labels for Chrome and Google Search. Competitor DuckDuckGo trolled the company for its delay, saying “after months of stalling, Google finally revealed how much personal data they collect in Chrome and the Google app. No wonder they wanted to hide it.” Burn!

Business, Enterprise and Productivity

App Annie partners with Snowflake and introduces a new Salesforce integration. The former allow data teams to access and transform a variety of mobile estimates, both live and continually updated. The new App Annie Intelligence Salesforce Connector, meanwhile, lets App Annie customers build a better pipeline through mobile-metric enriched CRM records.

Google Meet rolls out the tile view on iOS, to be soon followed by Android support. This view allows a user to see more of the people on the video call, even on the small screen. The app also introduced support for live captions in four new languages on mobile (French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, the latter for Spain and Latin America)

Funding and M&A

🤝 Snap acquired a Berlin-based clothing size recommendation engine Fit Analytics that helps online shoppers buy the right sized clothes. Deal terms were undisclosed. The acquisition will see over 100 Fit team members joining Snap as the company pushes into e-commerce.

💰 Riva Health raised $15.5 million in seed (!!) funding to turn your smartphone into a blood pressure monitor, in a round led by Menlo Ventures. The company is co-founded by scientist Tuhin Sinha and Siri and Viv (exited to Samsung) co-founder Dag Kittlaus. The system being developed would have users place their finger over the phone’s camera light, which would then flash, allowing the app to use the light to track the blood pressure reading.

💰 Mobile banking app Kuda raised $25 million led by Valar to become the neobank for all of Africa. The company today offers mobile-first banking services in Nigeria and has doubled its user base from its seed round to now 650,000.

💰 London-based mobile investing app Invstr raised $20 million to pair Robinhood-like commission-free stock trades with digital banking services and educational and learning tools. The app has over 1 million global users.

💰 Investing app Gatsby raised a $10 million Series A for its Robinhood competitor. The app is aimed at younger users, offering commission-free options and stock trading and is aiming to have more than 100K accounts by the end of the year.

💰 Digitail’s app for veterinary surgery practices raised $2.5 million in seed funding, in a round led by byFounders and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI fund). The company currently has 2,000 vets in 16 countries using its services.

💰 Match Group makes a seven-figure investment in background check nonprofit Garbo. The Tinder parent company plans to integrate its apps with Garbo’s tools, which alert users to background checks of concern to daters like assault or stalking charges, among other things.

📉 Telegram is selling more than $1 billion in debt to investors to fund its operations and pay creditors, with the promises of discounted equity if the company later goes public. The messaging app owes its creditors around $700m by the end of April, The WSJ reported.

Downloads

Swell

Image Credits: Swell

A new startup called Swell has a different take on voice conversations than Clubhouse. Instead of real-time conversations, Swell users engage in asynchronous chats where one user posts an audio clip of up to five minutes in length that others can listen to and then respond to with their own recording. These mini-podcasts can be private chats or public conversations. Swell is available as a free download on both iOS and Android.

1v1Me

1v1Me launches its app that lets anyone gamble on their ability to win in a player versus player game. The iOS app is now available in an invite-only mode, with the first invites going to creators who play games like Call of Duty and Fortnite — the first games that will be supported on the betting platform. Users can sign up for early access on the company’s website for the time being, then stalk the company on Twitter for invites.

Half Lemons

This clever iOS recipes app, Half Lemons, does that thing you’ve always wanted a recipe app to do: it serves up dish ideas using the ingredients you have at home. To use the app, you take a quick digital inventory of your kitchen in order to customize the app to deliver recipes that are specifically tailored to your own ingredients. You can then save or share the recipes, in addition to making them right away with a screen that stays powered on as you cook. Future versions of the app will help you shop for ingredients and plan meals.

Retrofy your iPhone

Bored with your iOS 14 customizations? Take your iPhone old-school with this super retro iOS 14 icon and wallpaper set featuring over 110 Mac OS ’84 icons and six monochromatic wallpapers. The set has been handcrafted by freelance digital product designer Ben Vessey, who many years ago had created a similar theme for “retrofying” your desktop screen. When he heard about the Shortcuts feature in iOS 14, he got to work to build a version of this retro experience for iPhone. The pack is £3.99, or £79.99 if you want to request five custom icons of your choice in addition.

 

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

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Collective, a back-office for the self-employed, raises $20M from Ashton Kutcher’s VC

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With so much focus on the ‘creator economy’, and countries hit by the effects of the pandemic, the self-employed market is ‘booming’, for good or for ill. So it’s not too much of a surprise that
Collective,a subscription-based back-office for the self-employed has raised a $20 million Series A funding after launching only late last year.

The round was led by General Catalyst and joined by Sound Ventures (the venture capital fund founded by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary). Collective has now raised a total of $28.65 million. Other notable investors include: Steve Chen (Founder YouTube), Hamish McKenzie (Founder Substack), Aaron Levie (founder Box), Kevin Lin (founder Twitch), Sam Yam (founder Patreon), Li Jin (Atelier Ventures), Shadiah Sigala (founder HoneyBook), Adrian Aoun (founder Forward), Holly Liu (founder Kabam), Andrew Dudum (founder Hims) and Edward Hartman (founder LegalZoom).

Ashton Kutcher said in a statement: “We’re proud to be supporting a company that’s making it easier for creators to focus on what they do best by taking care of the back office work that creates so much friction for so many early entrepreneurs. I would have loved something like this when I was getting started.”

Launched in September 2020 by CEO Hooman Radfar, CPO Ugur Kaner and CTO Bugra Akcay, Collective offers “tailored” financial services, access to advisors that oversee accounting, tax, bookkeeping, and business formation needs. There are currently 59 million self-employed workers in the U.S. (36% of US workforce) who mostly do all their own admin. So Collective hopes to be their online back office platform.

Speaking to me over email, Radfar said that the start-up fintech market tends to serve companies like them – other start-ups and growing SMBs: “Companies like Pilot have done an amazing job at building a back-office platform that handles taxes, bookkeeping and finances for start-ups. We want to offer that same great value to the underserved business-of-one community, since they are the largest group of founders in the country.”

He added: “Before Collective, consultants, freelancers, and other solo founders had to string together their back-office solution using DIY platforms like Quickbooks, Gusto, and LegalZoom. If they were lucky, they had the help of a part-time accountant to advise them. Collective makes handling finances easy with the first all-in-one platform that not only bundles these tools into one platform, but also provides the technology and team to optimize their tax savings like the pros.”

According to some estimates, the number of lone freelancers in the US is projected to make up 86.5 million, 50% of the US workforce by 2027, with the freelancer space projected to grow three times faster than the traditional workforce.

Niko Bonatsos, Managing Director of General Catalyst said: “Collective is serving the $1.2 trillion business-of-one industry by building the first back-office platform that saves individuals significant time and money, while providing them with the appropriate tools and resources they need to help them succeed,” said “We’re excited to support Collective as they expand their team and build an exceptional service for the business-of-one community.”

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UK publishes draft Online Safety Bill

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The UK government has published its long-trailed (child) ‘safety-focused’ plan to regulate online content and speech.

The Online Safety Bill has been in the works for years — during which time a prior plan to require age verification for accessing online porn in the UK, also with the goal of protecting kids from being exposed to inappropriate content online but which was widely criticized as unworkable, got quietly dropped.

At the time the government said it would focus on introducing comprehensive legislation to regulate a range of online harms. It can now say it’s done that.

The 145-page Online Safety Bill can be found here on the gov.uk website — along with 123 pages of explanatory notes and an 146-page impact assessment.

The draft legislation imposes a duty of care on digital service providers to moderate user generated content in a way that prevents users from being exposed to illegal and/or harmful stuff online.

The government dubs the plan globally “groundbreaking” and claims it will usher in “a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world”.

Critics warn the proposals will harm freedom of expression by encouraging platforms to over-censor, while also creating major legal and operational headaches for digital businesses that will discourage tech innovation.

The debate starts now in earnest.

The bill will be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs — before a final version is formally introduced to Parliament for debate later this year.

How long it might take to hit the statute books isn’t clear but the government has a large majority in parliament so, failing major public uproar and/or mass opposition within its own ranks, the Online Safety Bill has a clear road to becoming law.

Commenting in a statement, digital secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Today the UK shows global leadership with our groundbreaking laws to usher in a new age of accountability for tech and bring fairness and accountability to the online world.

“We will protect children on the internet, crack down on racist abuse on social media and through new measures to safeguard our liberties, create a truly democratic digital age.”

The length of time it’s taken for the government to draft the Online Safety Bill underscores the legislative challenge involved in trying to ‘regulate the Internet’.

In a bit of a Freudian slip, the DCMS’ own PR talks about “the government’s fight to make the internet safe”. And there are certainly question-marks over who the future winners and losers of the UK’s Online Safety laws will be.

Safety and democracy?

In a press release about the plan, the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) claimed the “landmark laws” will “keep children safe, stop racial hate and protect democracy online”.

But as that grab-bag of headline goals implies there’s an awful lot going on here — and huge potential for things to go wrong if the end result is an incoherent mess of contradictory rules that make it harder for digital businesses to operate and for Internet users to access the content they need.

The laws are set to apply widely — not just to tech giants or social media sites but to a broad swathe of websites, apps and services that host user-generated content or just allow people to talk to others online.

In scope services will face a legal requirement to remove and/or limit the spread of illegal and (in the case of larger services) harmful content, with the risk of major penalties for failing in this new duty of care toward users. There will also be requirements for reporting child sexual exploitation content to law enforcement.

Ofcom, the UK’s comms regulator — which is responsible for regulating the broadcast media and telecoms sectors — is set to become the UK Internet’s content watchdog too, under the plan.

It will have powers to sanction companies that fail in the new duty of care toward users by hitting them with fines of up to £18M or ten per cent of annual global turnover (whichever is higher).

The regulator will also get the power to block access to sites — so the potential for censoring entire platforms is baked in.

Some campaigners backing tough new Internet rules have been pressing the government to include the threat of criminal sanctions for CEOs to concentrate C-suite minds on anti-harms compliance. And while ministers haven’t gone that far, DCMS says a new criminal offence for senior managers has been included as a deferred power — adding: “This could be introduced at a later date if tech firms don’t step up their efforts to improve safety.”

Despite there being widespread public support in the UK for tougher rules for Internet platforms, the devil is the detail of how exactly you propose to do that.

Civil rights campaigners and tech policy experts have warned from the get-go that the government’s plan risks having a chilling effect on online expression by forcing private companies to be speech police.

Legal experts are also warning over how workable the framework will be, given hard to define concepts like “harms” — and, in a new addition, content that’s defined as “democratically important” (which the government wants certain platforms to have a special duty to protect).

The clear risk is massive legal uncertainty wrapping digital businesses — with knock-on impacts on startup innovation and availability of services in the UK.

The bill’s earlier incarnation — a 2019 White Paper — had the word “harms” in the title. That’s been swapped for a more anodyne reference to “safety” but the legal uncertainty hasn’t been swapped out.

The emphasis remains on trying to rein in an amorphous conglomerate of ‘harms’ — some illegal, others just unpleasant — that have been variously linked to or associated with online activity. (Often off the back of high profile media reporting, such as into children’s exposure to suicide content on platforms like Instagram.)

This can range from bullying and abuse (online trolling), to the spread of illegal content (child sexual exploitation), to content that’s merely inappropriate for children to see (legal pornography).

Certain types of online scams (romance fraud) are another harm the government wants the legislation to address, per latest additions.

The umbrella ‘harms’ framing makes the UK approach distinct to the European Union’s Digital Service Act — a parallel legislative proposal to update the EU’s digital rules that’s more tightly focused on things that are illegal, with the bloc setting out rules to standardize reporting procedures for illegal content; and combating the risk of dangerous products being sold on ecommerce marketplaces with ‘know your customer’ requirements.

In a response to criticism of the UK Bill’s potential impact on online expression, the government has added measures which it said today are aimed at strengthen people’s rights to express themselves freely online.

It also says it’s added in safeguards for journalism and to protect democratic political debate in the UK.

However its approach is already raising questions — including over what look like some pretty contradictory stipulations.

For example, the DCMS’ discussion of how the bill will handle journalistic content confirms that content on news publishers’ own websites won’t be in scope of the law (reader comments on those sites are also not in scope) and that articles by “recognised news publishers” shared on in-scope services (such as social media sites) will be exempted from legal requirements that may otherwise apply to non journalistic content.

Indeed, platforms will have a legal requirement to safeguard access to journalism content. (“This means [digital platforms] will have to consider the importance of journalism when undertaking content moderation, have a fast-track appeals process for journalists’ removed content, and will be held to account by Ofcom for the arbitrary removal of journalistic content,” DCMS notes.)

However the government also specifies that “citizen journalists’ content will have the same protections as professional journalists’ content” — so exactly where (or how) the line gets drawn between “recognized” news publishers (out of scope), citizen journalists (also out of scope), and just any old person blogging or posting stuff on the Internet (in scope… maybe?) is going to make for compelling viewing.

Carve outs to protect political speech also complicate the content moderation picture for digital services — given, for example, how extremist groups that hold racist opinions can seek to launder their hate speech and abuse as ‘political opinion’. (Some notoriously racist activists also like to claim to be ‘journalists’…)

DCMS writes that companies will be “forbidden from discriminating against particular political viewpoints and will need to apply protections equally to a range of political opinions, no matter their affiliation”.

“Policies to protect such content will need to be set out in clear and accessible terms and conditions and firms will need to stick to them or face enforcement action from Ofcom,” it goes on, adding: “When moderating content, companies will need to take into account the political context around why the content is being shared and give it a high level of protection if it is democratically important.”

Platforms will face responsibility for balancing all these conflicting requirements — drawing on Codes of Practice on content moderation that respects freedom of expression which will be set out by Ofcom — but also under threat of major penalties being slapped on them by Ofcom if they get it wrong.

Interestingly, the government appears to be looking favorably on the Facebook-devised ‘Oversight Board’ model, where a panel of humans sit in judgement on ‘complex’ content moderation cases — and also discouraging too much use of AI filters which it warns risk missing speech nuance and over-removing content. (Especially interesting given the UK government’s prior pressure on platforms to adopt AI tools to speed up terrorism content takedowns.)

“The Bill will ensure people in the UK can express themselves freely online and participate in pluralistic and robust debate,” writes DCMS. “All in-scope companies will need to consider and put in place safeguards for freedom of expression when fulfilling their duties. These safeguards will be set out by Ofcom in codes of practice but, for example, might include having human moderators take decisions in complex cases where context is important.”

“People using their services will need to have access to effective routes of appeal for content removed without good reason and companies must reinstate that content if it has been removed unfairly. Users will also be able to appeal to Ofcom and these complaints will form an essential part of Ofcom’s horizon-scanning, research and enforcement activity,” it goes on.

“Category 1 services [the largest, most popular services] will have additional duties. They will need to conduct and publish up-to-date assessments of their impact on freedom of expression and demonstrate they have taken steps to mitigate any adverse effects. These measures remove the risk that online companies adopt restrictive measures or over-remove content in their efforts to meet their new online safety duties. An example of this could be AI moderation technologies falsely flagging innocuous content as harmful, such as satire.”

Another confusing-looking component of the plan is that while the bill includes measures to tackle what it calls “user-generated fraud” — such as posts on social media for fake investment opportunities or romance scams on dating apps — fraud that’s conducted online via advertising, emails or cloned websites will not be in scope, per DCMS, as it says “the Bill focuses on harm committed through user-generated content”.

Yet since Internet users can easily and cheaply create and run online ads — as platforms like Facebook essentially offer their ad targeting tools to anyone who’s willing to pay — then why carve out fraud by ads as exempt?

It seems a meaningless place to draw the line. Fraud where someone paid a few dollars to amplify their scam doesn’t seem a less harmful class of fraud than a free Facebook post linking to the self-same crypto investment scam.

In short, there’s a risk of arbitrary/ill-thought through distinctions creating incoherent and confusing rules that are prone to loopholes. Which doesn’t sound good for anyone’s online safety.

In parallel, meanwhile, the government is devising an ambitious pro-competition ex ante regime to regulate tech giants specifically. Ensuring coherence and avoiding conflicting or overlapping requirements between that framework for platform giants and these wider digital harms rules is a further challenge.

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Amazon updates Echo Show line with a pan and zoom camera and a kids model

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Amazon this morning announced a handful of updates across its Echo Show line of smart screens. The top-level most interesting bit here is the addition of a pan and zoom camera to the mid-tier Echo Show. The feature is similar to ones found on Facebook’s various Portal devices and Google’s high-end Nest Hub Max.

Essentially, it’s designed to keep the subject in frame – Apple also recently introduced the similar Center Stage features for the latest iPad Pro. It comes after Amazon introduced a far less subtle version in the Echo Show 10, which actually follows the subject around by swiveling the display around the base. I know I’m not alone in being a little creeped out, seeing it in action.

The new feature arrives on the Show 8’s 13-megapixel camera, which is coupled with a built-in physical shutter – a mainstay as Amazon is look to stay ahead of the privacy conversations. The eight-inch HD display is powered by an upgrade octa-core processors and coupled with stereo speakers. The new Show 8 runs $130.

The other biggest news here is the arrival of the Echo Show 5 Kids – the one really new product in the bunch. At $95, the kid-focused version of the screen features a customizable home screen, colorful design, a two-year warranty in case of creaks and a one-year subscription to Amazon Kids+.

There’s a new version of the regular Show 5, too, featuring an upgraded HD camera, new colors and additional software features. That runs $85. The new devices go up for preorder today and start shipping later this month.

 

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