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Main article: Europe

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Facebook and Airbnb told to change their ToS to fix EU consumer rights issues by year’s end

14:43 | 20 September

Facebook and Airbnb have been singled out for censure by the European Commission’s head of consumer affairs who has warned the companies she’s running out of patience and said they need to make additional changes to their terms of service before the end of the year to bring them into line with the bloc’s consumer rules.

The Commission has been sounding off about tech and social media platforms’ terms of service impinging on EU consumer rights for almost two years.

In February it warned a raft of companies they needed to do more to respect consumer rights. In July the Commission joined with EU consumer authorities to push Airbnb to make changes.

At the same time the Commission is pushing for an update to modernise EU consumer rules — and is hoping to get the backing of the European Parliament and member states, via the European Council, which is needed to reform EU law.

“I have respect for the work of national consumer authorities but sometimes the powers they have on national level are not sufficient for companies to co-operate efficient with them,”

commissioner Vera Jourova today. “Hence the #NewDealForConsumers we propose strengthening their power and having persuasive sanctions.”

The Commission’s public denouncement of tech giants inexorably, therefore, has a strategic political dimension, as it seeks to garner attention for its reform cause and drum up support for reworking the rules.

Though it clearly also feels that Facebook and Airbnb haven’t done enough to comply with existing EU consumer rules.

Giving an update on its efforts “to ensure fair treatment for consumers in the EU in the online world” at a press conference today, Jourova said the pair are still misleading consumers with terms and conditions that are not clear enough about costs, in the case of Airbnb, and about how user data is passed to third parties in the case of Facebook.

And while she said the pair have agreed to make additional changes she also put them on watch — warning she’s “running out of patience”, having been engaged in negotiations on the matter for almost two years now. 

On Airbnb she said the company has agreed to make additional changes before the end of the year to make it clearer to consumers what the total cost of a stay with a host will be before they hit ‘buy’.

“Following our call in July Airbnb informed us that it accepted to improve transparency of prices — so the consumers can know up front about the final price or additional costs, like cleaning fees or local taxes. Airbnb will also make changes to terms and conditions for instance to be clear that consumers can use all the legal remedies available and in particular their right to sue a host in case of personal harm or other damages,” she said. 

“EU consumers must have guaranteed the same rights in selling and purchasing offline and online,” Jourova added. “We didn’t come with a specific legislation for online selling but we always said offline rules must apply also for the online world. So this is what we are now doing with Airbnb and Facebook where we still see some gaps in their contracts which they use for providing their services to EU consumers.”

Responding to her remarks today in a statement, an Airbnb spokesperson told us: “Airbnb is a community build on trust and transparency is a key part of that. Guests have always been aware of all fees, including service charges and taxes, before booking listings, and we are pleased to work with the CPC to make this even clearer for guests.”

In Facebook’s case the Commission wants to see greater transparency in its ToS on the key characteristics of its services and relations with third parties with whom the company shares consumers’ data — saying a clearer link needs to be made between the actual provision of the service; the fact that consumers’ data constitute the consideration for receiving that service; and the commercial exploitation of the data and user generated content (by providing targeted advertising services to third parties).

It is also not happy about Facebook’s terms granting the company a perpetual licence on user generated content even after a user quits Facebook, saying this is unfair.

It also believes the rights Facebook grants itself over the content users upload is not made sufficiently prominent to consumers when they sign up.

Additionally it criticises Facebook’s terms for not being clear on its obligations to remove user generated content and/or suspend or terminate an account, saying its ToS include vague phrases and do not clarify whether the consumer will be notified in advance.

The Commission also flags the lack of an appeal option for consumers in some cases.

It’s also not happy about Facebook granting itself the power to unilaterally change its terms of service, saying this is contrary to EU consumer legislation which identifies as unfair terms that enable: “the seller or supplier to alter the terms of the contract unilaterally without a valid reason which is specified in the contract”.

Jourova said both Facebook and Airbnb have a deadline of October 18 to propose additional changes — which will then be assessed by the Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network of EU consumer rights bodies that it’s working with on this issue — with the aim of having an acceptable (“fully functional”) final implementation by December, and new compliant contracts definitely in place by January.

In further remarks about Facebook Jourova said her latest meeting with the company had been “constructive” but pointed to the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a “stark reminder that not many people have clarity on how Facebook uses personal data of its users and how it works with third parties like apps, games or quiz creators”.

“Not many people know that Facebook has made available their data to third parties or that, for instance, it holds full copyright about any picture or content you put on it even after you delete your account,” she continued, saying she had spoken to many Facebook users who were “very surprised” to learn the rights its ToS grant it over user data.

“So we want Facebook to be absolutely clear to its users about how the service operates and makes money. Facebook has almost 380M users in Europe and I expect Facebook to take more responsibility for them.”

“I expect also Facebook to be honest with those that go and try to understand all the consequences of using their services,” she added. “I will not hide that I am becoming rather impatient because we have been in dialogue with Facebook almost two years and I really want to see not a progress, it’s not enough for me, I want to see the results.”

Responding to Jourova’s remarks today, a Facebook spokesperson emailed us the following statement:

People share their most valued moments on Facebook, and we want to make our terms clear and accessible to everyone. We updated Facebook’s Terms of Service in May and included the vast majority of changes the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network and the European Commission had proposed at that point. Our terms are now much clearer on what is and what isn’t allowed on Facebook and on the options people have. We are grateful to the CPC and the Commission for their feedback and will continue our close cooperation to understand any further concerns and make appropriate updates.

At today’s press conference Jourova also raised the spectre of a regime of co-ordinated penalties for consumer rights violations coming down the pipe to strengthen enforcement, saying there’s a need for the EU to have “unified sanctions” (something it does now has for data protection violations, thanks to the GDPR).

Unified sanctions are included in the Commission’s new deal for consumers, which it adopted in April — and which is now on the table as a proposal for the other two EU institutions to consider and (the Commission hopes) support.

She said the proposal is “the package which should improve the enforcement of consumer rights in a very big scope”, adding: “I do hope that the European Parliament and the Member States will adopt the legislation or the position quickly so that we have this done as soon as possible in Spring next year.”

 


0

EU antitrust regulator eyeing Amazon’s use of merchant data

18:00 | 19 September

The European Union’s competition commission is looking into how Amazon uses data from retailers selling via its ecommerce marketplace, Reuters reports.

Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager revealed the action today during a press conference. “We are gathering information on the issue and we have sent quite a number of questionnaires to market participants in order to understand this issue in full,” she said.

It’s not a formal antitrust probe at this stage, with Vestager also telling reporters: “These are very early days and we haven’t formally opened a case. We are trying to make sure that we get the full picture.”

The Commission appears to be trying to determine whether or not third-party merchants selling on Amazon’s platform are being placed at a disadvantage vs the products Amazon also sells, thereby competing directly with some of its marketplace participants.

Companies found to be in breach of EU antitrust rules can be fined up to 10 per cent of their global annual turnover.

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment.

In recent years the ecommerce giant has greatly expanded the own-brand products it sells via its marketplace, such as via its Amazon Elements line, which includes vitamin supplements and baby wipes, and AmazonBasics — which covers a wide array of ‘everyday’ items including batteries and even towels.

The company does not always brand its own-brand products with the Amazon label, also operating a raft of additional own brands — including for kids clothes, women’s fashion, sportswear, home furnishings and most recently diapers, to name a few. So it is not always immediately transparent to shoppers on its marketplace when they are buying something produced by Amazon itself.

Meanwhile, tech giants’ grip on big data has been flagged as a potential antitrust concern by Vestager for several years now.

In a speech at the DLD conference back in 2016 she said: “If a company’s use of data is so bad for competition that it outweighs the benefits, we may have to step in to restore a level playing field,” adding then that she was continuing to “look carefully at this issue”.

It’s not clear how the Amazon probe will pan out but it signifies a stepping up of the Commission’s action in this area.

The EU also issued Google with a recordbreaking $5BN fine this summer, for abusing the dominance of its Android mobile operating system.

That fine followed another recordbreaking penalty in 2017, when Google was slapped with an $2.7BN antitrust fine related to its search comparison service, Google Shopping.

Google is appealing against both rulings.

 


0

Adblock Plus maker has a new taskforce to fight publisher efforts to reinject ads

17:22 | 19 September

In the arms race of ad blocking there’s clearly never a dull moment as efforts to block ads are combated by publisher and platform countermeasures trying to fox the blocks.

This is why Adblock Plus maker, eyeo, says it’s getting more serious in how it tackles what it dubs “circumvention technologies” — by setting up an interdisciplinary team internally that’s devoted to countering the ad blocker blockers.

It also says it wants the team to “work alongside publishers to develop user-friendly alternatives to so-called circumvention technology” — which, at the base level, boils down to trying to sell them on signing up its Acceptable Ads whitelist, aka the official way to circumvent its ad blocks (which also involves paying it a fee).

Though it also talks about promoting other more ‘user-friendly’ alternatives to reinjecting ads (such as paywalls).

Prior to creating the anti-circumvention taskforce eyeo says efforts towards blocking circumvention of ad blocks were mostly carried out by interested others outside the company — aka the open source community, filter list authors and developers of other ad blockers — who worked together, along with some from within eyeo, to try to fox the would-be ad block foxers.

It also says that effort was “somewhat siloed” — whereas now it’s confident its interdisciplinary taskforce is going to be more effective, claiming: “The results have already spoken for themselves.”

One result that eyeo stands by (though it predates the creation of the taskforce) is successfully beating back Facebook’s efforts to slip its ads past Adblock Plus.

Ben Williams, director of advocacy at eyeo, confirms to TechCrunch it’s now just short of a year since it figured out a way to counter Facebook’s workaround for Adblock Plus ad blocks.

“We can almost promise our users that Facebook will be back with a fix to our fix,” he wrote in October last year. “The good news is that the ultimate eventuality here is Facebook moving to make ads indistinguishable from content. And it’s not likely they’ll go that far.”

Williams tells us now that the taskforce represents “an effort to provide users with a better experience and to show them our efforts in securing it”.

“The taskforce will respond to users and their requests for a better experience, wherever that may be. In general, we at eyeo welcome all conversations with publishers to support meaningful and respectful monetisation,” he said. “The task force is charged with finding technical solutions to third-party circumvention. At eyeo, our mission is to provide users with control when they’re online, while keeping the web fair and profitable.”

While eyeo accepts that the number of circumvention technologies in play has increased, presumably as increasingly revenue-strapped publishers seek ways to workaround ad blocks, it argues that going against the wishes of users is “ineffective, and ultimately harmful to publisher revenue”. The company would clearly prefer publishers to submit to its Acceptable Ads whitelist route.

“We believe that the independent, third-party Acceptable Ads Standard, developed by the Acceptable Ads Committee, is the long-term solution to securing a sustainable advertising industry,” agrees Williams. “The Acceptable Ads marketplace provides users with a respectful ad experience, while allowing publishers to monetise.”

“In a much more general sense, the right way to deal with a user who blocks all or filters some ads is to talk to them and let them decide if and how they want to pay for the content,” he adds.

“For instance, circumvention is often confused with “anti-adblock walls,” which ask users to disable their ad blockers (the two are totally different). A wall such as this is just one alternative, which keeps users in control and does not attempt to circumvent their wishes.”

Williams says v3.1 of Adblock Plus, which landed back in April, baked in “new and significant anti-circumvention measures” for the first time — and he lauds “early results”, saying the addition resulted in 103 websites being “freed from reinjected ads”.

“The most common method used is to serve first-party ads with a randomized ID. The advertisement is stored on the same server as the main website, so blocking a specific domain does not work. We’re happy to say that we’re now more successful in combating this type of circumvention,” he says of circumvention techs.

“It’s important to keep in mind that circumvention is not something new — it’s been around since the start of ad blocking. It’s just that there are more third-party providers of circumvention now than there used to be.

“Our efforts with the taskforce are geared toward giving users of all ad blockers a better experience. However, circumvention has always been a cat-and-mouse game – it’s just that now the mouse is ready for anything the cat might throw its way.”

 


0

Twitter’s former Head of People EMEA joins VC firm Atomico as Partner

11:00 | 19 September

Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, is announcing a number of new hires to its investment team, including new Partner Caroline Chayot, who previously led the EMEA HR team at Twitter.

I’m told she’ll be working alongside existing Atomico Partner Dan Hynes, who was formerly the Director of Global Staffing at Skype, with the pair helping meet increased demand from Atomico’s portfolio companies for talent support.

At Twitter, Chayot is said to have supported the leadership team in scaling the social media behemoth from two to six markets, growing the team from 80 based in London to 500 across the region. Prior to that she worked at Google in HR for 9 years.

In addition, Irina Haivas has joined Atomico as Principal. The former surgeon and former surgical fellow at Harvard Medical School (yes, you read that correctly) previously worked at healthcare investor GHO Capital Partners. She’ll focus on sourcing investment opportunities in machine intelligence-enabled businesses, synthetic biology, robotics and other “frontier technologies”.

The other new members of the 30-strong Atomico investment team are:

  • Senior Associate Annalise Dragic, a recent Stanford MBA graduate and who was a member of LinkedIn’s Strategy & Analytics Leadership Program’s inaugural class. She’ll be focusing on the U.K.
  • Associate Luca Eisenstecken, a German native who spent the last two years in San Francisco with Vector Capital. He’ll be covering Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
  • Associate Christina Fa, who grew up in Australia and New Zealand and joins Atomico from Google’s Corporate Finance team in Mountain View. She’ll be focusing on the Nordics and Baltic regions.
  • IR Associate Gunita Bhasin, who joins Atomico from Deutsche Bank and has lived and studied in India, Singapore, Turkey, and the U.K. She’ll support long-time Head of IR Camilla Richards in managing Atomico’s relationships with its global investor base.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Atomico’s new addition to its communications team. Eleanor Warnock, formerly with the Wall Street Journal, has joined the VC firm as Communications Manager. The hack-turned-flack will work alongside Atomico’s Head of Communications Bryce Keane to help raise the profile of the firm’s portfolio companies internationally.

Meanwhile, it’s that time of year again. Atomico has launched its latest State of European Tech survey, where it seeks your help in capturing a data-driven snapshot of the current European tech ecosystem and to confront a number of myths along the way. You can read TC’s analysis of the 2017 report here, and if you’d like to contribute, this year’s survey can be found here.

 


0

Tandem CEO will tell you why building a bank is hard at Disrupt Berlin

10:10 | 19 September

Challenger banks, neobanks or digital-only banks… Whatever we choose to call them, Europe — and the U.K. in particular — has more than its fair share of bank upstarts battling it out for a slice of the growing fintech pie. One of those is Tandem, co-founded by financial technology veteran Ricky Knox, who we’re excited to announce will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Tandem — or the so-called “Good Bank” — has been on quite a journey this year. Most recently the bank launched a competitive fixed savings product, pitting it against a whole host of incumbent and challenger banks. It followed the launch of the Tandem credit card in February, which competes well on cash-back and FX rates when spending abroad.

Both products are part of a wider strategy where, like many other consumer-facing fintechs, Tandem wants to become your financial control centre and connect you to and offer various financial services. These are either products of its own or through partnerships with other fintech startups and more established providers.

At the heart of this is the Tandem mobile app, which acts as a Personal Finance Manager (PFM), including letting you aggregate your non-Tandem bank account data from other bank accounts or credit cards you might have, in addition to managing any Tandem products you’ve taken out. The company recently acquired fintech startup Pariti to beef up its account aggregation features.

However, what makes Tandem’s recent progress all the more interesting is that it comes after a definite bump in the road last year. This saw the company temporarily lose its banking license and forced to make lay-offs following the partial collapse of a £35 million investment round from department store House of Fraser, due to restrictions on capital leaving China. The remedy was further investment from existing backers and the bold move to acquire Harrods Bank, the banking arm of the U.K.’s most famous luxury department store.

As you can see, there is plenty to talk about. And some. So, why not grab your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to the Tandem story. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Ricky Knox

CEO & Co-Founder, Tandem

Ricky is a serial investor and entrepreuner. He has built five technology disruptors in fintech and telecoms, each of which also does a bit of good for the world.

Before Tandem he founded Azimo and Small World, two remittance businesses, and is managing partner of Hexagon Partners, a private equity firm. He built Tandem to be a digital bank that helps improve customers’ lives with money.

Ricky has a first class degree from Bristol University and an MBA from INSEAD.

 


0

Vegan meal delivery startup Allplants is served £7.5M Series A funding

10:00 | 19 September

Allplants, a London-based startup that delivers ready-made “plant-based” meals (that’s vegan, to you and me), has raised £7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by VC firm Octopus Ventures, which was an early backer in healthy snack delivery company Graze.

Additional investors in the round include existing backer Felix Capital (which I’m told has doubled its seed investment), Swedish VC firm Otiva, unnamed partners at VerlInvest (who are participating in a personal capacity), David Milner (ex-CEO Tyrells), Simon Nixon (founder of MoneySupermarket), and video blogger Jack Harries. Allplants reckons it is the U.K.’s largest Series A round for a vegan company.

Based on the premise that switching to a plant-based diet is the most impactful way to reduce our environmental footprint (and improve health), Allplants has developed a delivery service that wants to make it “effortlessly easy to eat more plants”. Specifically, either as a one-off or on a subscription basis, it delivers healthy, chef-made, vegan meals, for you to reheat at home.

They are “quick frozen” to lock in freshness and the idea is that you receive six meals at a time, to serve one or two people each, making the model more scalable and delivery more cost-effective. When your food is delivered you store it in your own freezer and cook/eat as needed, before your next order.

Since being founded in 2017 by brothers Jonathan and Alex Petrides, Allplants says it has served over 250,000 meals nationwide to plant-inspired foodies and built a “movement” with over 70,000 online fans. Notably, the company is a B-Corp, promising to do good by people and the planet.

Meanwhile, Allplants says it will use the investment to develop a broader range of ready-to-eat food, accelerate the growth of its community, further grow its North London-based 40-plus team, and expand the capacity of its production kitchen, which will operate on renewable and waste-created energy.

Adds Allplants’ Jonathan Petrides: “Most allplants customers aren’t veggie or vegan, they’re curious and hunting for convenient, healthy ways to boost their busy lives. This investment well help us fuel the plant-based movement forward”.

 


0

Call for smart home devices to bake in privacy safeguards for kids

02:01 | 19 September

A new research report has raised concerns about how in-home smart devices such as AI virtual voice assistants, smart appliances, and security and monitoring technologies could be gathering and sharing children’s data.

It calls for new privacy measures to safeguard kids and make sure age appropriate design code is included with home automation technologies.

The report, entitled Home Life Data and Children’s Privacy, is the work of Dr Veronica Barassi of Goldsmiths, University of London, who leads a research project at the university investigating the impact of big data and AI on family life.

Barassi wants the UK’s data protection agency to launch a review of what she terms “home life data” — meaning the information harvested by smart in-home devices that can end up messily mixing adult data with kids’ information — to consider its impact on children’s privacy, and “put this concept at the heart of future debates about children’s data protection”.

“Debates about the privacy implications of AI home assistants and Internet of Things focus a lot on the the collection and use of personal data. Yet these debates lack a nuanced understanding of the different data flows that emerge from everyday digital practices and interactions in the home and that include the data of children,” she writes in the report.

“When we think about home automation therefore, we need to recognise that much of the data that is being collected by home automation technologies is not only personal (individual) data but home life data… and we need to critically consider the multiple ways in which children’s data traces become intertwined with adult profiles.”

The report gives examples of multi-user functions and aggregated profiles (such as Amazon’s Household Profiles feature) as constituting a potential privacy risk for children’s privacy.

Another example cited is biometric data — a type of information frequently gathered by in-home ‘smart’ technologies (such as via voice or facial recognition tech) yet the report asserts that generic privacy policies often do not differentiate between adults’ and children’s biometric data. So that’s another grey area being critically flagged by Barassi.

She’s submitted the report to the ICO in response to its call for evidence and views on an Age Appropriate Design Code it will be drafting. This code is a component of the UK’s new data protection legislation intended to support and supplement rules on the handling of children’s data contained within pan-EU privacy regulation — by providing additional guidance on design standards for online information services that process personal data and are “likely to be accessed by children”.

And it’s very clear that devices like smart speakers intended to be installed in homes where families live are very likely to be accessed by children.

The report concludes:

There is no acknowledgement so far of the complexity of home life data, and much of the privacy debates seem to be evolving around personal (individual) data. It seems that companies are not recognizing the privacy implications involved in children’s daily interactions with home automation technologies that are not designed for or targeted at them. Yet they make sure to include children in the advertising of their home technologies. Much of the responsibility of protecting children is in the hands of parents, who struggle to navigate Terms and Conditions even after changes such as GDPR [the European Union’s new privacy framework]. It is for this reason that we need to find new measures and solutions to safeguard children and to make sure that age appropriate design code is included within home automation technologies.

“We’ve seen privacy concerns raised about smart toys and AI virtual assistants aimed at children, but so far there has been very little debate about home hubs and smart technologies aimed at adults that children encounter and that collect their personal data,” adds Barassi commenting in a statement.

“The very newness of the home automation environment means we do not know what algorithms are doing with this ‘messy’ data that includes children’s data. Firms currently fail to recognise the privacy implications of children’s daily interactions with home automation technologies that are not designed or targeted at them.

“Despite GDPR, it’s left up to parents to protect their children’s privacy and navigate a confusing array of terms and conditions.”

The report also includes a critical case study of Amazon’s Household Profiles — a feature that allows Amazon services to be shared by members of a family — with Barassi saying she was unable to locate any information on Amazon’s US or UK privacy policies on how the company uses children’s “home life data” (e.g. information that might have been passively recorded about kids via products such as Amazon’s Alexa AI virtual assistant).

“It is clear that the company recognizes that children interact with the virtual assistants or can create their own profiles connected to the adults. Yet I can’t find an exhaustive description or explanation of the ways in which their data is used,” she writes in the report. “I can’t tell at all how this company archives and sells my home life data, and the data of my children.”

Amazon does make this disclosure on children’s privacy — though it does not specifically state what it does in instances where children’s data might have been passively recorded (i.e. as a result of one of its smart devices operating inside a family home.)

Barassi also points out there’s no link to its children’s data privacy policy on the ‘Create your Amazon Household Profile’ page — where the company informs users they can add up to four children to a profile, noting there is only a tiny generic link to its privacy policy at the very bottom of the page.

We asked Amazon to clarify its handling of children’s data but at the time of writing the company had not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The EU’s new GDPR framework does require data processors to take special care in handling children’s data.

In its guidance on this aspect of the regulation the ICO writes: “You should write clear privacy notices for children so that they are able to understand what will happen to their personal data, and what rights they have.”

The ICO also warns: “The GDPR also states explicitly that specific protection is required where children’s personal data is used for marketing purposes or creating personality or user profiles. So you need to take particular care in these circumstances.”

 


0

Apple has finished paying $15 billion European fine

20:07 | 18 September

Apple has finished wiring billions of euros to pay back illegal tax benefits to the Irish government according to Reuters. Overall, Apple has paid $15.3 billion (€13.1 billion) for the original fine as well as $1.4 billion (€1.2 billion) in interests.

In August 2016 the European Commission ruled that Apple benefited from illegal tax benefits from 2003 to 2014. In particular, the company should have paid more taxes in Ireland — a lot more. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said that Apple’s effective corporate tax rate was much lower than expected.

At the time, many global companies used the Double Irish structure to pay corporate tax on a fraction of your actual profit. Apple claimed that everything was legal, and the Irish government sided with Apple — probably because the huge fine would be bad for business.

European governments lobbied to put an end to the Double Irish back in 2014. Apple moved some of its international cash to the tiny island of Jersey around the same time.

For now, the pile of cash is sitting in an escrow account. Apple appealed the European Union’s decision back in 2016. This process could take up to five years, which means that the Irish government won’t see Apple’s money anytime soon.

If you’ve been following European tax reforms, you know that France, Germany, Spain and Italy were discussing a reform to tax big tech companies based on actual revenue in each European country. This way, tech companies wouldn’t be able to report profit in just one country with a lower corporate tax rate.

But it looks like this reform is now stuck as some European countries disagree with this reform. You need everybody on board to pass this kind of reforms. For this reason, it’s unclear if it’s going to happen at all.

 


0

Ostrichpillow Hood, the latest product from Studio Banana, is no joke

15:00 | 18 September

I’m not going to lie, when Studio Banana released the original Ostrichpillow back in 2012, despite breaking all Kickstarter records at the time, I thought the whole thing might be an elaborate joke. Or, worse still, since the sleep-at-your-desk styled product had found popularity amongst people who worked at startups, Silicon Valley was now parodying itself.

Except that “transformative” design company Studio Banana is based in Europe, with offices based in London, Lake Geneva and Madrid. And 500,000 sales and five products later, the joke is arguably on its critics. As I’m fond of telling founders who ask for validation, ultimately it is the market that decides.

Enter the latest Ostrichpillow creation: the aptly named Ostrichpillow Hood. Aptly named because, well, it’s a hood. However, unlike the previous products in the range, which were designed to facilitate sleep in non-traditional places, the Ostrichpillow Hood, we’re told, is to be used in “everyday waking life”.

Specifically, by reducing the ability to see activity in the edges of your field of vision, it is intended to help you focus on the task at hand and/or reduce overstimulation, such as the kind induced by open plan co-working spaces.

The Ostrichpillow Original

“The product we’re launching now is the sixth of the different products that have emerged in the Ostrichpillow family and they’re catering to different needs,” Ali Ganjavian, co-founder of Studio Banana, tells me in a video call yesterday. “Ostrichpillow was really about complete isolation and it was really a statement product… So different products have different use-cases and different functions, and also different social acceptances”.

I suggest that the Ostrichpillow Hood may turn out to be broadly socially acceptable, not least for anyone already familiar with the original Ostrichpillow, but also because asking work colleagues to respect the need to focus is a lot different to asking them to ignore your need to take a nap at your desk. Ganjavian doesn’t degree, even though there is no doubt the two products share the same design heritage.

“A lot of the stuff we are thinking about now is about the state of mind,” he says, noting that throughout the working day we are bombarded with stimuli and information, from messaging apps, emails, social media, meetings and even something as innocuous as having to say hello to work mates. “[The Ostrichpillow Hood] is really about sheltering. It is not only a physical movement, there is psychology in the way it shelters you… it’s about shifting your mood”.

Next Ganjavian demonstrates the three positions the Ostrichpillow Hood is designed to be worn.

The ‘Hood’ position is for when you need to concentrate on something in public, for example when commuting or in an open plan office or coffee shop. Like wearing a pair of visually loud headphones, it also has the added effect of signalling to colleagues that you’d rather not be disturbed or are “wired in“.

The ‘Eclipse’ position, where the hood can be turned around to cover your face completely, is for when you need to truly switch off from your surroundings, such as to deeply think, take a short break or meditate. “If I’ve got my headphones on in that posture then what it allows me to do is to totally isolate myself in the same way I would with an Ostrichpillow but in a much more acceptable way,” says Ganjavian.

Finally, the ‘Hoop’ position, with the hood worn down around your neck, is designed to feel warm and cozy and turns the Ostrichpillow Hood into attire more akin to a fashion accessory.

Adds the Studio Banana co-founder: “What I find really exciting about this moment is that I currently work in between three different geographies, there is so much going on, and how do we create a tool or object that makes me feel good, helps me perform better, and helps me become more efficient, and also feeds that overall well-being that I’m looking for in my workplace. At the same time, I can just walk out into the street with it on and just go home and feel good about it”.

 


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Ultimate.ai nabs $1.3M for a customer service AI focused on non-English markets

12:54 | 18 September

For customer service, Ultimate.ai‘s thesis is it’s not humans or AI but humans and AI. The Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup has built an AI-powered suggestion engine that, once trained on clients’ data-sets, is able to provide real-time help to (human) staff dealing with customer queries via chat, email and social channels. So the AI layer is intended to make the humans behind the screens smarter and faster at responding to customer needs — as well as freeing them up from handling basic queries to focus on more complex issues.

AI-fuelled chatbots have fast become a very crowded market, with hundreds of so called ‘conversational AI’ startups all vying to serve the customer service cause.

Ultimate.ai stands out by merit of having focused on non-English language markets, says co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen. This is a consequence of the business being founded in Finland, whose language belongs to a cluster of Eastern and Northern Eurasian languages that are plenty removed from English in sound and grammatical character.

“[We] started with one of the toughest languages in the world,” he tells TechCrunch. “With no available NLP [natural language processing] able to tackle Finnish, we had to build everything in house. To solve the problem, we leveraged state-of-the-art deep neural network technologies.

“Today, our proprietary deep learning algorithms enable us to learn the structure of any language by training on our clients’ customer service data. Core within this is our use of transfer learning, which we use to transfer knowledge between languages and customers, to provide a high-accuracy NLU engine. We grow more accurate the more clients we have and the more agents use our platform.”

Ultimate.ai was founded in November 2016 and launched its first product in summer 2017. It now has more than 25 enterprise clients, including the likes of Zalando, Telia and Finnair. It also touts partnerships with tech giants including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — integrating with their Contact Center solutions.

“We partner with these players both technically (on client deployments) and commercially (via co-selling). We also list our solution on their Marketplaces,” he notes.

Up to taking in its first seed round now it had raised an angel round of €230k in March 2017, as well as relying on revenue generated by the product as soon as it launched.

The $1.3M seed round is co-led by Holtzbrinck Ventures and Maki.vc.

Kainulainen says one of the “key strengths” of Ultimate.ai’s approach to AI for text-based customer service touch-points is rapid set-up when it comes to ingesting a client’s historical customer logs to train the suggestion system.

“Our proprietary clustering algorithms automatically cluster our customer’s historical data (chat, email, knowledge base) to train our neural network. We can go from millions of lines of unstructured data into a trained deep neural network within a day,” he says.

“Alongside this, our state-of-the-art transfer learning algorithms can seed the AI with very limited data — we have deployed Contact Center automation for enterprise clients with as little as 500 lines of historical conversation.”

Ultimate.ai’s proprietary NLP achieves “state-of-the-art accuracy at 98.6%”, he claims.

It can also make use of what he dubs “semi-supervised learning” to further boost accuracy over time as agents use the tool.

“Finally, we leverage transfer learning to apply a single algorithmic model across all clients, scaling our learnings from client-to-client and constantly improving our solution,” he adds.

On the competitive front, it’s going up against the likes of IBM’s Watson AI. However Kainulainen argues that IBM’s manual tools — which he argues “require large onboarding projects and are limited in languages with no self-learning capabilities” — make that sort of manual approach to chatbot building “unsustainable in the long-term”.

He also contends that many rivals are saddled with “lengthy set-up and heavy maintenance requirements” which makes them “extortionately expensive”.

A closer competitor (in terms of approach) which he namechecks is TC Disrupt battlefield alum Digital Genius. But again they’ve got English language origins — so he flags that as a differentiating factor vs the proprietary NLP at the core of Ultimate.ai’s product (which he claims can handle any language).

“It is very difficult to scale out of English to other languages,” he argues. “It also uneconomical to rebuild your architecture to serve multi-language scenarios. Out of necessity, we have been language-agnostic since day one.”

“Our technology and team is tailored to the customer service problem; generic conversational AI tools cannot compete,” he adds. “Within this, we are a full package for enterprises. We provide a complete AI platform, from automation to augmentation, as well as omnichannel capabilities across Chat, Email and Social. Languages are also a key technical strength, enabling our clients to serve their customers wherever they may be.”

The multi-language architecture is not the only claimed differentiator, either.

Kainulainen points to the team’s mission as another key factor on that front, saying: “We want to transform how people work in customer service. It’s not about building a simple FAQ bot, it’s about deeply understanding how the division and the people work and building tools to empower them. For us, it’s not Superagent vs. Botman, it’s Superagent + Botman.”

So it’s not trying to suggest that AI should replace your entire customers service team but rather enhance your in house humans.

Asked what the AI can’t do well, he says this boils down to interactions that are transactional vs relational — with the former category meshing well with automation, but the latter (aka interactions that require emotional engagement and/or complex thought) definitely not something to attempt to automate away.

“Transactional cases are mechanical and AI is good at mechanical. The customer knows what they want (a specific query or action) and so can frame their request clearly. It’s a simple, in-and-out case. Full automation can be powerful here,” he says. “Relational cases are more frequent, more human and more complex. They can require empathy, persuasion and complex thought. Sometimes a customer doesn’t know what the problem is — “it’s just not working”.

“Other times are sales opportunities, which businesses definitely don’t want to automate away (AI isn’t great at persuasion). And some specific industries, e.g. emergency services, see the human response as so vital that they refuse automation entirely. In all of these situations, AI which augments people, rather than replaces, is most effective.

“We see work in customer service being transformed over the next decade. As automation of simple requests becomes the status-quo, businesses will increasingly differentiate through the quality of their human-touch. Customer service will become less labour intensive, higher skilled work. We try and imagine what tools will power this workforce of tomorrow and build them, today.”

On the ethics front, he says customers are always told when they are transferred to a human agent — though that agent will still be receiving AI support (i.e. in the form of suggested replies to help “bolster their speed and quality”) behind the scenes.

Ultimate.ai’s customers define cases they’d prefer an agent to handle — for instance where there may be a sales opportunity.

“In these cases, the AI may gather some pre-qualifying customer information to speed up the agent handle time. Human agents are also brought in for complex cases where the AI has had difficulty understanding the customer query, based on a set confidence threshold,” he adds.

Kainulainen says the seed funding will be used to enhance the scalability of the product, with investments going into its AI clustering system.

The team will also be targeting underserved language markets to chase scale — “focusing heavily on the Nordics and DACH [Germany, Austria, Switzerland]”.

“We are building out our teams across Berlin and Helsinki. We will be working closely with our partners – SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — to further this vision,” he adds. 

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, investment manager at Holtzbrinck Ventures, added: “The customer service industry is a huge market and one of the world’s largest employers. Ultimate.ai addresses the main industry challenges of inefficiency, quality control and high people turnover with latest advancements in deep learning and human machine hybrid models. The results and customer feedback are the best I have seen, which makes me very confident the team can become a forerunner in this space.”

 


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