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How scooter charging startups want to make the industry more profitable

20:00 | 17 January

In an industry where unit economics are low, operators are seeking ways to improve margins while also maintaining fleet reliability and low prices for riders. Charging stations may be part of the solution. Already, there are a handful of companies, other than the operators themselves, looking to address this issue by deploying charging stations. The latest one that has come onto our radar is called Charge, which just launched charging hubs in Los Angeles for both bikes and scooters.

“Charge came from two investors of Lime who were noticing a trend in the several markets Lime was rolling out into,” Charge Global Head of Community Quemuel Arroyo told TechCrunch. “They saw the Achilles heel was the lack of charging infrastructure, and that infrastructure could allow scooters to be charged all day and would undo the litter and obstacles in the right of way that scooters have become in the world.”

Charge’s hubs, located on private properties, are designed to make it easier for gig workers to charge several scooters at once. Workers can reserve space at hubs for 24 hours at a time, with each secure bay supporting 18 scooters and each hub accommodating 72 scooters at a time. Once charged, workers can pick them up for redeployment.

“In addition to the solution of providing charge, we’re enhancing the experience for juicers,” Arroyo said.

Bird, Lime, Spin and other micromobility operators rely heavily on independent contractors to collect their scooters, charge them overnight and then redeploy them in the morning. That means scooter companies don’t have to use their own gas, labor and electricity in order to recharge these vehicles.

For gig workers who rely on charging scooters as a source of income, having a place to go other than their homes to charge a bunch of scooters at once is a major benefit. The catch, however, is that Charge costs $3.70 per charge while Bird and Lime, for example, offer a base pay of $3 to $5 for every charged and released scooter, but pay more depending on how difficult it is to locate.

Let’s use Spin, which pays $5 per scooter charged, as an example. If someone collects 15 scooters and brings them to a Charge hub, that worker will receive $75 from Spin for charging and redeploying the scooters, but will have to pay Charge $55.50. That’s a net profit of just $19.50.

“It’s not cheaper for them, but juicers say that instead of being able to charge 12 a night, they can charge 24 or more scooters per night,” Arroyo said. “That’s where we see an incremental increase for revenue for juicers themselves.”

Trying the calculation again with 24 scooters, the worker would pay Charge $88.80 and get $120 from Spin for a net profit of $31.20. That doesn’t seem all that great, but it could be depending on someone’s situation. Maybe one person only has enough space to charge five scooters at a time, so they would only be able to make $25 per night charging Spin scooters. If that same person can then charge 24 scooters a night, they still end up making a bit more by utilizing Charge. On top of that, they don’t have to crowd their living spaces and put themselves at risk of fire hazards.

Even though micromobility is a relatively young industry, there are already a number of startups specifically focused on charging micromobility vehicles. Collectively, they have raised more than $19 million in funding.

In addition to the hubs Charge has launched in Los Angeles, the company is also in talks with the city of Paris to deploy smart charging stations on sidewalks, which can accommodate up to 12 scooters.

“We’ve gotten an exclusive contract with the city, where the mayor says her streets are compromised and they can’t continue to allow scooter takeover of pedestrian space,” Arroyo said.

In this type of model, riders would be able to rent and return vehicles using the docks. This model is more similar to that of Swiftmile, which is working with the city of Austin to deploy 10 public-use sidewalk stations. That comes out to 80 parking slips per station. The company hopes to do this by the end of the year. With this type of model, charging companies charge operators based on usage.

swiftmile scooter charging

Swiftmile’s guerilla marketing at SXSW

Swiftmile, for example, charges the operators by the minute, but not to exceed a certain amount, depending on the market. Initially, the docking system will be open to all operators in order to show them how it works and how beneficial it can be. After a certain period of time, Swiftmile will only charge its customers’ scooters. Swiftmile has also partnered with Spin to create branded charging hubs exclusively for Spin scooters.

“Cities and local officials have expressed ample concern about scooter clutter, and Spin has led the way in solving that problem, with the goal of making micro-mobility a true and sustainable solution for people to get around,” Spin CEO and co-founder Derrick Ko told TechCrunch. “We’ve heavily invested in our charging and parking solution–Spin Hubs–and have expanded our offerings such as incentivizing riders to park in designated drop zones or at a Hub.”

Perch Mobility is another competitor in this space, which says it’s “built by chargers for chargers.” Perch, which also operates in Los Angeles, offers three types of products: the pod, the tri-pod and the suite. All three offer unlimited charging for a fixed price, ranging from $25 per night for charging 14 scooters and $45 per night to charge 21 scooters at a time.

Using Spin again as an example, a worker paying $25 a night to charge 14 scooters would earn $70 from Spin, resulting in a net income of $45.

“We are focused on providing our users both sustainable incomes and community sustainability,” Perch Mobility CEO Tom Schreiber told TechCrunch. “We serve all parts of a community, including lower-income areas.”

Perch Mobility gets workers more money, but Charge says its systems are better for the environment, as they utilize lithium-ion green battery power.

“We’re confident we have a completely green, environmentally-sound asset that really helps introduce a missing parameter to make micromobility more successful,” Arroyo said.

If I were a charger, I’d surely continue to care about the environment, but I’d probably be more interested in making the most money.

 


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Discount student tickets available for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020

20:00 | 17 January

“Revolutionary” may be an over-used adjective, but how else to describe the rapid evolution in mobility technology? Join us in San Jose, Calif., on May 14 for TC Sessions: Mobility 2020. Our second annual day-long conference cuts through the hype and explores the current and future state of the technology and its social, regulatory and economic impact.

If you’re a student with a passion for mobility and transportation tech then listen up. We can’t talk about the future if we’re not willing to invest in the next generation of mobility visionaries. That’s why we offer student tickets at a deep discount — $50 each. Invest in your future, save $200 and spend the day with more than 1,000 of mobility tech’s brightest minds, movers and makers.

As always, you can count on a program packed with top-notch speakers, panel discussions, fireside chats and workshops. We’re in the process of building our agenda, but we’re ready to share our first two guests with you: Boris Sofman and Nancy Sun.

Sofman is the engineering director at Waymo and former co-founder and CEO of Anki. Sun is the co-founder and chief engineer of Ike Robotics. You can read more about Sofman and Sun’s accomplishments. We can’t wait to hear what they have to say about automation and robotics.

Keep checking back, because we’ll announce more exciting speakers in the coming weeks.

You’ll also have plenty of time for world-class networking. What better place for a student to impress — and possibly score a great internship or job? You might even meet a future co-founder or an investor. That knocking sound you hear is opportunity. Open the door.

Hold up…you’re not a student but still love a bargain? We’ve got you covered, too. You can save $100 if you purchase an early-bird ticket before April 9.

Be part of the revolution. Join the mobility and transportation tech community — the top technologists, investors researchers and visionaries — on May 14 at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020 in San Jose. Get your student ticket today.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 


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Cambridge Analytica whistleblower reveals new documents showing how Facebook handled the data misuse scandal

19:23 | 17 January

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser has released new documents today that suggest Facebook accepted only a simple acknowledgment on email from the firm that it had deleted data associated with 87 million Facebook users’ profiles.

The data was improperly obtained in 2014 by researchers with access to Facebook’s developer platform who were being paid by Cambridge Analytica to obtain and process social media users’ information for the purpose of targeting political ads.

In December 2015 a Guardian article about Cambridge academic Dr Aleksandr Spectre (Kogan) outlined how he had acquired the Facebook profiles for research, and that Cambridge Analytica had improperly acquired that data.

In subsequent Washington Senate hearings into the scandal, Mark Zuckerburg apologized for having failed to check that Cambridge Analytica had deleted the information.

At the time he said: “When we heard back from Cambridge Analytica that they had told us that they weren’t using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case. In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. We shouldn’t have taken their word for it. We’ve updated our policy to make sure we don’t make that mistake again.”

Instead, Facebook let the political consultancy self-certify that it had destroyed the records, which it said had been acquired in violation of the social network’s rules.

Furthermore, for example, in a submission to the UK Parliament, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said: “In late 2015, when we learned Kogan had shared the data, we immediately banned TIYDL [the personality quiz app used to harvest data] from our platform and demanded that he delete all data he obtained from that app. We also demanded deletion from everyone that Kogan identified as having been passed some data, including Cambridge Analytica, and certification from all parties that the deletion had been completed.”

The information Kaiser releases today appears to show a difference between Schroepfer’s account and what the emails actually say – with Facebook only asking the company to “provide us with confirmation” [of the deletion], and no mention of a specific process of certification, as Schroepfer later told the UK parliament.

Today Kaiser revealed exclusively to TechCrunch on stage at the WorldWebForum conference in Zurich that the only acknowledgment from Facebook had come in a simple email exchange with Cambridge Analytica executives.

This ’email exchange’ – which TechCrunch has not been able to independently verify at this point – as never previously been published. Kaiser released to TechCrunch what she claims is a copy of the exchange. We have reached out to Facebook for comment.

According to the document passed to us, writing on Dec 17, 2015, Alex Tayler, Chief Data Officer for Cambridge Analytica, allegedly wrote to Facebook executive Allison Hendrix saying:

“I wanted to confirm that following your inquiry, that Facebook is satisfied that CA has not breached it’s terms of service or stolen data on non-consenting individuals. If you are satisfied this matter is resolved, would it please be possible for us to have a statement from Facebook to disseminate through our PR agency? We are still finding some articles repeating the initial false allegations made by the Guardian, and would like to be able to firmly refute them in order to prevent any further reputational damage to our company. Alternatively, if Facebook would like to issue a joint press release, we would welcome the opportunity to do so.”

A day later on 18 December 2015, Hendrix replied:

“Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me last week and providing additional information into Dr. Kogan’s development of the GSR app which was funded by Cambridge Analytica (via SCL Elections). As discussed, we don’t allow any information obtained from Facebook to be purchased or sold, and we have strict friend data policies that prohibit using friend data for any purpose other than improving a person’s experience in your app. From our conversations, it is clear that these policies have been violated.

“You have told us that you received personality score data from Dr. Kogan that was derived from Facebook data, and that those scores were assigned to individuals included in lists that you maintained. Because that data was improperly derived from data obtained from the Facebook Platform, and then transferred to Cambridge Analytica in violation of our terms, we need you to take any and all steps necessary to completely and thoroughly delete that information as well as any data derived from such data, and to provide us with confirmation of the same.

“We need additional information to complete our review. As an initial matter, did you transfer any data you received from Dr. Kogan to any person or entity other than Ted Cruz’s team? Have you made any other use of the data from Dr. Kogan? If there is any additional information of which you think we should be aware, we thank you in advance for providing us with that information and for your help resolving these issues.

“Please respond at your earliest opportunity confirming when you can complete the above request to delete all data (and any derivative data), and providing the additional information I’ve requested above. As mentioned above, our review is not complete; accordingly, we may have additional questions, requests, or requirements going forward, and this email should not be construed as a waiver of any of Facebook’s rights.”

On December 19, 2015, Tayler replied:

“Dear Allison, There are several incorrect statements in your email. First and foremost, Cambridge Analytica has not transferred the data we received from Dr Kogan to Cruz for President, nor to any other party. The only data we share with our clients are lists of contact information, perhaps with a few tags attached, for target audiences we identify for them (e.g. likely donors, persuadable voters), and models that we have produced under their direction. Secondly, Cambridge Analytica did not fund the development of Dr. Kogan’s app. We did not pay GSR for their time or technology, but rather paid the third party (e.g. survey vendor) costs for the surveys they ran. Please note that GSR was
contractually obliged to us to carry out this research with the consent of the survey respondents and in line with the terms of service of their vendors.

“Having made that clear, the model we received from Dr Kogan wasn’t very accurate (in validation experiments we ran, we found his predictions only slightly better than random). For our goal of extrapolating personality scores across our whole database, his model was simply not accurate enough to use as a training set, or to apply it commercially in any other way.

“Nevertheless, we still considered the project a success in that it provided us with a proof of concept for the personality research we have since undertaken internally (which is in no way connected with Facebook). It is these data that we have collected independently of GSR about which we have built our current business offering. For this reason, and in the spirit of the good-faith relationship we would like to maintain with Facebook, we will comply with your request to delete all data we received from Dr Kogan.

“Please let me know what else you require from us as soon as possible. It is a matter of urgency that we make it clear that Cambridge Analytica has not done anything wrong.”

There was then a time-lag probably due to the break for the holidays. On 5 January 2016, Hendrix replied:

“Thank you for your timely and detailed response, and for agreeing to delete any and all data that was derived from the Facebook Platform. Can you let me know how you were storing the data and what you did to delete it?”

On January 6, 2016, Tayler replied, copying in CA CEO Alexander Nix, saying: “To be clear, we have not yet deleted the data we received from Dr Kogan, but will be happy to do so once Facebook confirms that this will resolve the matter. We are currently storing the data as csv files in an encrypted directory on our file server. When we delete the data we will simply rm -rf the directory.”

Six days later on 12 January, Hendrix: “As a reminder, you received the data inappropriately and are obligated to delete it. You’ve indicated that you would like to maintain a positive relationship with us. Having one will require deletion of the data. In addition to deleting the data from the directory, can you check to see whether your server has any backups which also contain the data? While we don’t anticipate further issues at this time, we reserve our rights and can make no guarantees.”

On Jan 18, 2016 Tayler replied:

“I can confirm that we have now deleted from our file-server the data we received from Dr Kogan in good faith that this resolves our obligation to Facebook. I also confirm that I have checked that the server contains no backups of that data. Our having deleted the data and cooperated in this matter should not be construed as an admission of any kind of wrongdoing on our part.”

On January 18, 2016, Hendrix replied: “Thank you, Alex. I will let you know if we have any follow up questions, and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you or your team have any questions on your end. Thanks again. – Ali”

This entire exchange was then forwarded by executives form the N6A PR agency to Cambridge Analytica executives and was, in turn, was obtained by Kaiser on 23 January 2016.

 


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LocalGlobe partner Julia Hawkins discusses fem tech’s risks and rewards

19:21 | 17 January

London-based seed fund LocalGlobe is incredibly active at the early-stage end of the startup pipeline with a broad focus across multiple sectors and areas, including health.

We interviewed partner Julia Hawkins about the opportunities and risks related to fem tech investing in light of the fund’s early backing for Ferly, a female-founded startup with a subscription app that describes itself as an audio guide to “mindful sex.”

The startup says its mission is to open up conversations around female sexual pleasure and create a place for self-discovery and empowering community — touting “sex-positive” content that it says is “backed by research, written by experts, and personalized to you.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 


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Microsoft announces global Teams ad push as it combats Slack for the heart of enterprise comms

19:05 | 17 January

The long-running contest between Microsoft and its Teams service and Slack’s eponymous application continued this morning, with Redmond announcing what it describes as its first “global” advertising push for its enterprise communication service.

Slack, a recent technology IPO, exploded in the back half of last decade, accreting huge revenues while burrowing into the tech stacks of the startup world. The former startup’s success continued as it increasingly targeted larger companies; it’s easier to stack revenue in enterprise-scale chunks than it is by onboarding upstarts.

Enterprise productivity software, of course, is a large percentage of Microsoft’s bread and butter. And as Slack rose — and Microsoft decided against buying the then-nascent rival — the larger company invested in its competing Teams service. Notably, today’s ad push is not the first advertising salvo between the two companies. Slack owns that record, having welcomed Microsoft to its niche in a print ad that isn’t aging particularly well.

Slack and Teams are competing through public usage announcements. Most recently, Teams announced that it has 20 million daily active users (DAUs); Slack’s most recent number is 12 million. Slack, however, has touted how active its DAUs are, implying that it isn’t entirely sure that Microsoft’s figures line up to its own. Still, the rising gap between their numbers is notable.

Microsoft’s new ad campaign is yet another chapter in the ongoing Slack vs. Teams. The ad push itself is only so important. What matters more is that Microsoft is choosing to expend some of its limited public attention bandwidth on Teams over other options.

Stock

While Teams is merely part of the greater Office 365 world that Microsoft has been building for some time, Slack’s product is its business. And since its direct listing, some air has come out of its shares.

Slack’s share price has fallen from the mid-$30s after it debuted to the low-$20s today. I’ve explored that repricing and found that, far from the public markets repudiating Slack’s equity, the company was merely mispriced in its early trading life. The company’s revenue multiple has come down since its first days as a public entity, but remains rich; investors are still pricing Slack like an outstanding company.

Ahead, Slack and Microsoft will continue to trade competing DAU figures. The question becomes how far Slack’s brand can carry it against Microsoft’s enterprise heft.

 


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Zendesk launches Sell Marketplace to bring app store to CRM product

19:00 | 17 January

Zendesk acquired Base CRM in 2018 to give customers a CRM component to go with its core customer service software. After purchasing the company, it changed the name to Sell, and today the company announced the launch of the new Sell Marketplace.

Officially called The Zendesk Marketplace for Sell, it’s a place where companies can share components that extend the capabilities of the core Sell product. Companies like MailChimp, HubSpot and QuickBooks are available at launch.

App directory in Sell Marketplace. Screenshot: Zendesk

Matt Price, SVP and general manager at Zendesk, sees the marketplace as a way to extend Sell into a platform play, something he thinks could be a “game changer.” He likened it to the impact of app stores on mobile phones.

“It’s that platform that accelerated and really suddenly [transformed smart phones] from being just a product to [launching an] industry. And that’s what the marketplace is doing now, taking Sell from being a really great sales tool to being able to handle anything that you want to throw at it because it’s extensible through apps,” Price explained.

Price says that this ability to extend the product could manifest in several ways. For starters, customers can build private apps with a new application development framework. This enables them to customize Sell for their particular environment, such as connecting to an internal system or building functionality that’s unique to them.

In addition, ISVs can build custom apps, something Price points out they have been doing for some time on the Zendesk customer support side. “Interestingly Zendesk obviously has a very large community of independent developers, hundreds of them, who are [developing apps for] our support product, and now we have another product that they can support,” he said.

Finally, industry partners can add connections to their software. For instance, by installing Dropbox for Sell, it gives sales people a way to save documents to Dropbox and associate them with a deal in Sell.

Of course, what Zendesk is doing here with Sell Marketplace isn’t new. Salesforce introduced this kind of app store concept to the CRM world in 2006 when it launched AppExchange, but the Sell Marketplace still gives Sell users a way to extend the product to meet their unique needs, and that could prove to be a powerful addition.

 


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Chinese podcasting and audio content app Lizhi debuts on Nasdaq

18:01 | 17 January

Lizhi, one of China’s biggest audio content apps, is debuting on Nasdaq today under the ticker symbol LIZI. It is the first of its major competitors, Ximalaya and Dragonfly, to go public (though Ximalaya is expected to also list in the United States later this year). Lizhi is offering 4.1 million shares at an IPO price of $11 per share.

Though Lizhi, Ximalaya and Dragonfly each host podcasts, audiobooks and livestreams, Lizhi, whose investors include Xiaomi, TPG, Matrix Partners China, Morningside Venture Capital and Orchid Asia, has differentiated itself by focusing on user-generated content created with the app’s recording tools.

According to market research firm iResearch, it has the largest community of user-generated audio content in China. The company said that in the third quarter of 2019, it had a base of 46.6 million average monthly active users on mobile and 5.7 million average monthly active content creators. While podcasts in the U.S. typically use revenue models based on ads or subscriptions, creators on Lizhi and other Chinese podcasting apps monetize through virtual gifts, similar to the ones given by viewers during video livestreams.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Lizhi CEO Marco Lai said the company plans to use proceeds from the IPO to invest in product development and its AI technology. Lizhi uses AI tech to distribute podcasts, which it says results in a 31% click rate on content. AI is also used to monitor content, give creators instant user engagement data and provide features that allow them to fine-tune recordings, reduce noise and create 3D audio.

Despite its quick growth, Lai says online audio in China is still an emerging segment. About 45.5% of total mobile internet users in China listened to online audio content in 2018, but adoption is expected to increase as IoT devices like smart speakers become more popular, especially in smaller cities. Lizhi has a partnership with Baidu for its Xiaodu smart speakers, and develop new ways of distributing content for IoT devices, says Lai.

 


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Cannabis marketing company Fyllo acquires CannaRegs for $10M

17:14 | 17 January

Fyllo, a digital marketing company focused on the cannabis industry, has acquired CannaRegs, a website offering subscription access to state and municipal cannabis regulations. Fyllo founder and CEO Chad Bronstein (pictured above) said his company paid $10 million in cash and stock.

Bronstein previously served as chief revenue officer at digital marketing company Amobee, and he told me that the two companies are “very complementary,” particularly since regulations and compliance present “a unique technical challenge” when it comes to advertising cannabis products.

Ultimately, his goal is for Fyllo to offer “compliance as a service,” with artificial intelligence helping brands and publishers ensure that all their cannabis advertising follows local laws. At the same time, Bronstein said Fyllo will continue to support CannaRegs’ 150-plus customers (mostly law firms, real estate professionals and cannabis operators) and work to bring more automation to the platform.

In addition, CannaRegs founder and CEO Amanda Ostrowitz will become Fyllo’s chief strategy officer, with CannaRegs’ 30 employees continuing to work out of their Denver office. This brings Fyllo’s total headcount to around 70.

“In a short period of time, Fyllo has emerged as an essential platform for publishers and cannabis companies to build creative campaigns in a safe and compliant way,” Ostrowitz said in a statement. “By teaming up with Fyllo, we have the chance to build a truly remarkable brand that can disrupt the entire industry. We look forward to delivering our same quality of data to existing customers and incorporating that data into Fyllo’s platform to become a one-stop-shop for cannabis brands looking to grow their businesses.”

Chicago-based Fyllo raised $18 million in funding last year.

 


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Cloud services provider DigitalOcean is laying off staff, sources say 30-50 affected

17:10 | 17 January

After appointing a new CEO and CFO last summer, cloud infrastructure provider DigitalOcean is embarking on a wider reorganisation: the startup has announced a round of layoffs, with potentially between 30 and 50 people affected.

DigitalOcean has confirmed the news with the following statement:

DigitalOcean recently announced a restructuring to better align its teams to its go-forward growth strategy. As part of this restructuring, some roles were, unfortunately, eliminated. DigitalOcean continues to be a high-growth business with $275M in [annual recurring revenues] and more than 500,000 customers globally. Under this new organizational structure, we are positioned to accelerate profitable growth by continuing to serve developers and entrepreneurs around the world.”

Before this morning, are a number of footprints began to emerge last night, when the layoffs first hit, with people on Twitter talking about it, some

that they are looking for new opportunities, and some
help to
. Our inbound tips estimate the cuts at between 30 and 50 people. With around 500 employees (an estimate on PitchBook) that would work out to up to 10% of staff affected.

It’s not clear what is going on here — we’ll update as and when we hear more — but when Yancey Spruill and Bill Sorenson were respectively appointed CEO and CFO in July 2019 (Spruill replacing someone who was only in the role for a year), the incoming CEO put out a short statement that, in hindsight, hinted at a refocus of the business in the near future.

“My aspiration is for us to continue to provide everything you love about DO now, but to also enhance our offerings in a way that is meaningful, strategic and most helpful for you over time,” he said at the time.

The company provides a range of cloud infrastructure services to developers, including scalable compute services (“Droplets” in DigitalOcean terminology), managed Kubernetes clusters, object storage, managed database services, Cloud Firewalls, Load Balancers and more, with 12 datacenters globally. It says it works with more than 1 million developers across 195 countries. It’s also been expanding the services that it offers to developers, including more enhancements in its managed database services, and a free hosting option for continuous code testing in partnership with GitLab.

All the same, as my colleague Frederic pointed out when DigitalOcean appointed its latest CEO, while developers have generally been happy with the company, it isn’t as hyped as it once was, and is a smallish player nowadays.

And in an area of business where economies of scale are essential for making good margins on a business, it competes against some of the biggest leviathans in tech: Google (and its Google Cloud Platform), Amazon (which as AWS) and Microsoft (with Azure). That could mean that DigitalOcean is either trimming down as it talks investors for a new round; or to better conserve cash as it sizes up how best to compete against these bigger, deep-pocketed players; or perhaps to start thinking about another kind of exit.

In that context, it’s notable that the company not only appointed a new CFO last summer, but also a CEO with prior CFO experience. It’s been a while since DigitalOcean has raised capital. According to PitchBook, DigitalOcean last raised money in 2017, an undisclosed amount from Mighty Capital, Glean Capital, Viaduct Ventures, Black River Ventures, Hanaco Venture Capital, Torch Capital and EG Capital Advisors. Before that, it took out $130 million in debt, in 2016. Altogether it has raised $198 million and its last valuation was from a round in 2015, $683 million.

We’ll update this post as we learn more. Best wishes to those affected by the news.

 


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Privacy experts slam UK’s “disastrous” failure to tackle unlawful adtech

17:08 | 17 January

The UK’s data protection regulator has been slammed by privacy experts for once again failing to take enforcement action over systematic breaches of the law linked to behaviorally targeted ads — despite warning last summer that the adtech industry is out of control.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has also previously admitted it suspects the real-time bidding (RTB) system involved in some programmatic online advertising to be unlawfully processing people’s sensitive information. But rather than take any enforcement against companies it suspects of law breaches it has today issued another mildly worded blog post — in which it frames what it admits is a “systemic problem” as fixable via (yet more) industry-led “reform”.

Yet it’s exactly such industry-led self-regulation that’s created the unlawful adtech mess in the first place, data protection experts warn.

The pervasive profiling of Internet users by the adtech ‘data industrial complex’ has been coming under wider scrutiny by lawmakers and civic society in recent years — with sweeping concerns being raised in parliaments around the world that individually targeted ads provide a conduit for discrimination, exploit the vulnerable, accelerate misinformation and undermine democratic processes as a consequence of platform asymmetries and the lack of transparency around how ads are targeted.

In Europe, which has a comprehensive framework of data protection rights, the core privacy complaint is that these creepy individually targeted ads rely on a systemic violation of people’s privacy from what amounts to industry-wide, Internet-enabled mass surveillance — which also risks the security of people’s data at vast scale.

It’s now almost a year and a half since the ICO was the recipient of a major complaint into RTB — filed by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group; and Dr Michael Veale, a data and policy lecturer at University College London — laying out what the complainants described then as “wide-scale and systemic” breaches of Europe’s data protection regime.

The complaint — which has also been filed with other EU data protection agencies — agues that the systematic broadcasting of people’s personal data to bidders in the adtech chain is inherently insecure and thereby contravenes Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which stipulates that personal data be processed “in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data”.

The regulation also requires data processors to have a valid legal basis for processing people’s information in the first place — and RTB fails that test, per privacy experts — either if ‘consent’ is claimed (given the sheer number of entities and volumes of data being passed around, which means it’s not credible to achieve GDPR’s ‘informed, specific and freely given’ threshold for consent to be valid); or ‘legitimate interests’ — which requires data processors carry out a number of balancing assessment tests to demonstrate it does actually apply.

“We have reviewed a number of justifications for the use of legitimate interests as the lawful basis for the processing of personal data in RTB. Our current view is that the justification offered by organisations is insufficient,” writes Simon McDougall, the ICO’s executive director of technology and innovation, developing a warning over the industry’s rampant misuse of legitimate interests to try to pass off RTB’s unlawful data processing as legit.

The ICO also isn’t exactly happy about what it’s found adtech doing on the Data Protection Impact Assessment front — saying, in so many words, that it’s come across widespread industry failure to actually, er, assess impacts.

“The Data Protection Impact Assessments we have seen have been generally immature, lack appropriate detail, and do not follow the ICO’s recommended steps to assess the risk to the rights and freedoms of the individual,” writes McDougall.

“We have also seen examples of basic data protection controls around security, data retention and data sharing being insufficient,” he adds.

Yet — again — despite fresh admissions of adtech’s lawfulness problem the regulator is choosing more stale inaction.

In the blog post McDougall does not rule out taking “formal” action at some point — but there’s only a vague suggestion of such activity being possible, and zero timeline for “develop[ing] an appropriate regulatory response”, as he puts it. (His preferred ‘E’ word in the blog is ‘engagement’; you’ll only find the word ‘enforcement’ in the footer link on the ICO’s website.)

“We will continue to investigate RTB. While it is too soon to speculate on the outcome of that investigation, given our understanding of the lack of maturity in some parts of this industry we anticipate it may be necessary to take formal regulatory action and will continue to progress our work on that basis,” he adds.

McDougall also trumpets some incremental industry fiddling — such as trade bodies agreeing to update their guidance — as somehow relevant to turning the tanker in a fundamentally broken system.

(Trade body, the Internet Advertising Bureau’s UK branch, has responded to developments with an upbeat note from its head of policy and regulatory affairs, Christie Dennehy-Neil, who lauds the ICO’s engagement as “a constructive process”, claiming: “We have made good progress” — before going on to urge its members and the wider industry to implement “the actions outlined in our response to the ICO” and “deliver meaningful change”. The statement climaxes with: “We look forward to continuing to engage with the ICO as this process develops.”)

McDougall also points to Google removing content categories from its RTB platform from next month (a move it announced months back, in November) as an important development; and seizes on the tech giant’s recent announcement of a proposal to phase out support for third party cookies within the next two years as ‘encouraging’.

Privacy experts have responded with facepalmed outrage to yet another can-kicking exercise by the UK regulator — warning that cosmetic tweaks to adtech won’t fix a system that’s designed to feast off unlawful and insecure high velocity background trading of Internet users’ personal data.

“When an industry is premised and profiting from clear and entrenched illegality that breach individuals’ fundamental rights, engagement is not a suitable remedy,” said UCL’s Veale. “The ICO cannot continue to look back at its past precedents for enforcement action, because it is exactly that timid approach that has led us to where we are now.”

The trio behind the RTB complaints (which includes Veale) have also issued a scathing collective response to more “regulatory ambivalence” — denouncing the lack of any “substantive action to end the largest data breach ever recorded in the UK”.

“The ‘Real-Time Bidding’ data breach at the heart of RTB market exposes every person in the UK to mass profiling, and the attendant risks of manipulation and discrimination,” they warn. “Regulatory ambivalence cannot continue. The longer this data breach festers, the deeper the rot sets in and the further our data gets exploited. This must end. We are considering all options to put an end to the systemic breach, including direct challenges to the controllers and judicial oversight of the ICO.”

Wolfie Christl, a privacy researcher who focuses on adtech — including contributing to a recent study looking at how extensively popular apps are sharing user data with advertisers, dubbed the ICO’s response “disastrous”.

“Last summer the ICO stated in their report that millions of people were affected by thousands of companies’ GDPR violations. I was sceptical when they announced they would give the industry six more months without enforcing the law. My impression is they are trying to find a way to impose cosmetic changes and keep the data industry happy rather than acting on their own findings and putting an end to the ubiquitous data misuse in today’s digital marketing, which should have happened years ago. The ICO seems to prioritize appeasing the industry over the rights of data subjects, and this is disastrous,” he told us.

“The way data-driven online marketing currently works is illegal at scale and it needs to be stopped from happening,” Christl added. “Each day EU data protection authorities allow these practices to continue further violates people’s rights and freedoms and perpetuates a toxic digital economy.

“This undermines the GDPR and generally trust in tech, perpetuates legal uncertainty for businesses, and punishes companies who comply and create privacy-respecting services and business models. 20 months after the GDPR came into full force, it is still not enforced in major areas. We still see large-scale misuse of personal information all over the digital world. There is no GDPR enforcement against the tech giants and there is no enforcement against thousands of data companies beyond the large platforms. It seems that data protection authorities across the EU are either not able — or not willing — to stop many kinds of GDPR violations conducted for business purposes. We won’t see any change without massive fines and data processing bans. EU member states and the EU commission must act.”

 


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