House and Senate put Zuckerberg on notice: “You are the right person to testify before Congress”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been rather scarce lately, despite a host of woes besetting his company — but Wednesday he emerged from his cocoon to offer a limp apology, admit they had no control over data like that used by Cambridge Analytica, and that he “will happily” testify before Congress if he’s the right person to do so.

Well, Congress has taken him at his word. “You are the right person to testify before Congress,” wrote the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a letter detailed early this morning. His capacity as CEO and “the employee who has been the leader of Facebook through all the key strategic decisions since its launch” make him the best person to testify.

Earlier this week Senators Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kennedy (R-LA) from the Senate Judiciary Committee specifically asked for Zuckerberg as well.

Senator Kennedy had sharp words (in a CNN interview) for Facebook and other tech companies that sent along some smooth operators to talk to them back in November: “We had one hearing — they all sent their lawyers. I don’t know what they paid them but they got their money’s worth, cause their lawyers didn’t say a damn thing.”

He and others are asking that the man himself come along.

The Senate Commerce Committee also desires his presence.

At this point it would be pretty dangerous for Zuckerberg not to heed the call. Lawmakers don’t take kindly to captains of industry who send underlings instead of tackling major issues like this personally.

As the Open Markets Institute’s Matt Stolller points out in an insightful tweet storm, however, the shortcomings of Facebook’s privacy rules are only part of the story. Once Congress has Zuckerberg in the hot seat, they might consider taking on the idea that Facebook has been playing news organizations and publishers like a fiddle.

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How Raya’s $8/month dating app turned exclusivity into trust

The swipe is where the similarity ends. Raya is less like Tinder and more like a secret society. You need a member’s recommendations or a lot of friends inside to join, and you have to apply with an essay question. It costs a flat $7.99 for everyone, women and celebrities included. You show yourself off with a video slideshow set to music of your choice. And it’s for professional networking as well as dating, with parallel profiles for each.

Launched in March 2015, Raya has purposefully flown under the radar. No interviews. Little info about the founders. Not even a profile on Crunchbase’s startup index. In fact, in late 2016 it quietly acquired video messaging startup Chime, led by early Facebooker Jared Morgenstern, without anyone noticing. He’d become Raya’s first investor a year earlier. But Chime was fizzling out after raising $1.2 million. “I learned the not everyone who leaves Facebook, their next thing turns to gold” Morgenstern laughs. So he sold it to Raya for equity and brought four of his employees to build new experiences for the app.

Now the startup’s COO, Morgenstern has agreed to give TechCrunch the deepest look yet at Raya, where the pretty, popular, and powerful meet each other.

Temptation Via Trust

Raya COO Jared Morgenstern

“Raya is a utility for introducing you to people who can change your life. Soho House uses physical space, we’re trying to use software” says Morgenstern, referencing the global network of members-only venues.

We’re chatting in a coffee shop in San Francisco. It’s an odd place to discuss Raya, given the company has largely shunned Silicon Valley in favor of building a less nerdy community in LA, New York, London, and Paris. The exclusivity might feel discriminatory for some, even if you’re chosen based on your connections rather than your wealth or race. Though people already self-segregate based on where they go to socialize. You could argue Raya just does the same digitally

Morgenstern refuses to tell me how much Raya has raised, how it started, or anything about its co-founder Mike McGuiness who owns LA public relations company the Co-Op Agency beyond that the team is a “Humble, focused group that prefers not to be part of the story.” But he did reveal some of the core tenets that have reportedly attracted celebrities like DJs Diplo and Skrillex, actors Elijah Wood and Amy Schumer, and musicians Demi Lovato and John Mayer, plus scores of Instagram models and tattooed creative directors.

Raya’s iOS-only app isn’t a swiping game for fun and personal validation. Its interface and curated community are designed to get you from discovering someone to texting if you’re both interested to actually meeting in person as soon as possible. Like at a top-tier university or night club, there’s supposed to be an in-group sense of camaraderie that makes people more open to each other.

Then there are the rules.

“This is an intimate community with zero-tolerance for disrespect or mean-spirited behavior. Be nice to each other. Say hello like adults” says an interstitial screen that blocks use until you confirm you understand and agree every time you open the app. That means no sleazy pick-up lines or objectifying language. You’re also not allowed to screenshot, and you’ll be chastized with a numbered and filed warning if you do.

It all makes Raya feel consequential. You’re not swiping through infinite anybodies and sorting through reams of annoying messages. People act right because they don’t want to lose access. Raya recreates the feel of dating or networking in a small town, where your reputation follows you. And that sense of trust has opened a big opportunity where competitors like Tinder or LinkedIn can’t follow.

Self-Expression To First Impression

Until now, Raya showed you people in your city as well as around the world — which is a bit weird since it would be hard to ever run into each other. But to achieve its mission of getting you offline to meet people in-person, it’s now letting you see nearby people on a map when GPS says they’re at hotspots like bars, dancehalls, and cafes. The idea is that if you both swipe right, you could skip the texting and just walk up to each other.

“I’m not sure why Tinder and the other big meeting people apps aren’t doing this” says Morgenstern. But the answer seems obvious. It would be creepy on a big public dating app. Even other exclusive dating apps like The League that induct people due to their resume more than their personality might feel too unsavory for a map, since having gone to an Ivy League college doesn’t mean you’re not a jerk. Hell, it might make that more likely.

But this startup is betting that its vetted, interconnected, “cool” community will be excited to pick fellow Raya members out of the crowd to see if they have a spark or business synergy.

That brings Raya closer to the holy grail of networking apps where you can discover who you’re compatible with in the same room without risking the crash-and-burn failed come-ons. You can filter by age and gender when browsing social connections, or by “Entertainment & Culture”, “Art & Design”, and “Business & Tech” buckets for work. And through their bio and extended slideshows of photos set to their favorite song, you get a better understanding of someone than from just a few profile pics on other apps.

Users can always report people they’ve connected with if they act sketchy, though with the new map feature I was dismayed to learn they can’t yet report people they haven’t seen or rejected in the app. That could lower the consequences for finding someone you want to meet, learning a bit about them, but then approaching without prior consent. However, Morgenstern insists.”The real risk is the density challenge”.

Finding Your Tribe

Raya’s map doesn’t help much if there are no other members for 100 miles. The company doesn’t restrict the app to certain cities, or schools like Facebook originally did to beat the density problem. Instead it relies on the fact that if you’re in the middle of nowhere you probably don’t have friends on it to pull you in. Still, that makes it tough for Raya to break into new locales.

But the beauty of the business is that since all users pay $7.99 per month, it doesn’t need that many to earn plenty of money. And at less than the price of a cocktail, the subscription deters trolls without being unaffordable. Morgenstern says “The most common reason to stop your subscription: I found somebody.” That ‘success = churn’ equation drags on most dating apps. Since Raya has professional networking as well though, he says some people still continue the subscription even after they find their sweetheart.

“I’m happily in a relationship and I’m excited to use maps” Morgenstern declares. In that sense, Raya wants to expand those moments in life when you’re eager and open to meet people, like the first days of college. “At Raya we don’t think that’s something that should only happen when you’re single or when you’re twenty or when you move to a new city.”

The bottomless pits of Tinder and LinkedIn can make meeting people online feel haphazard to the point of exhaustion. We’re tribal creatures who haven’t evolved ways to deal with the decision paralysis and the anxiety caused by the paradox of choice. When there’s infinite people to choose from, we freeze up, or always wonder if the next one would have been better than the one we picked. Maybe we need Raya-like apps for all sorts of different subcultures beyond the hipsters that dominate its community, as I wrote in my 2015’s piece “Rise Of The Micro-Tinders”. But if Raya’s price and exclusivity lets people be both vulnerable and accountable, it could forge a more civil way to make a connection.

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Facebook knows literally everything about you

Cambridge Analytica may have used Facebook’s data to influence your political opinions. But why does least-liked tech company Facebook have all this data about its users in the first place?

Let’s put aside Instagram, WhatsApp and other Facebook products for a minute. Facebook has built the world’s biggest social network. But that’s not what they sell. You’ve probably heard the internet saying “if a product is free, it means that you are the product.”

And it’s particularly true in that case because Facebook is the world’s second biggest advertising company in the world behind Google. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.

That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.

Ads aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed. So the company has two options — creating new products and ad formats, or optimizing those sponsored posts.

Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed

This isn’t a zero-sum game — Facebook has been doing both at the same time. That’s why you’re seeing more ads on Instagram and Messenger. And that’s also why ads on Facebook seem more relevant than ever.

If Facebook can show you relevant ads and you end up clicking more often on those ads, then advertisers will pay Facebook more money.

So Facebook has been collecting as much personal data about you as possible — it’s all about showing you the best ad. The company knows your interests, what you buy, where you go and who you’re sleeping with.

You can’t hide from Facebook

Facebook’s terms and conditions are a giant lie. They are purposely misleading, too long and too broad. So you can’t just read the company’s terms of service and understand what it knows about you.

That’s why some people have been downloading their Facebook data. You can do it too, it’s quite easy. Just head over to your Facebook settings and click the tiny link that says “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

In that archive file, you’ll find your photos, your posts, your events, etc. But if you keep digging, you’ll also find your private messages on Messenger (by default, nothing is encrypted).

And if you keep digging a bit more, chances are you’ll also find your entire address book and even metadata about your SMS messages and phone calls.

All of this is by design and you agreed to it. Facebook has unified terms of service and share user data across all its apps and services (except WhatsApp data in Europe for now). So if you follow a clothing brand on Instagram, you could see an ad from this brand on

Messaging apps are privacy traps

But Facebook has also been using this trick quite a lot with Messenger. You might not remember, but the on-boarding experience on Messenger is really aggressive.

On iOS, the app shows you a fake permission popup to access your address book that says “Ok” or “Learn More”. The company is using a fake popup because you can’t ask for permission twice.

There’s a blinking arrow below the OK button.

If you click on “Learn More”, you get a giant blue button that says “Turn On”. Everything about this screen is misleading and Messenger tries to manipulate your emotions.

“Messenger only works when you have people to talk to,” it says. Nobody wants to be lonely, that’s why Facebook implies that turning on this option will give you friends.

Even worse, it says “if you skip this step, you’ll need to add each contact one-by-one to message them.” This is simply a lie as you can automatically talk to your Facebook friends using Messenger without adding them one-by-one.

The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger

If you tap on “Not Now”, Messenger will show you a fake notification every now and then to push you to enable contact syncing. If you tap on yes and disable it later, Facebook still keeps all your contacts on its servers.

On Android, you can let Messenger manage your SMS messages. Of course, you guessed it, Facebook uploads all your metadata. Facebook knows who you’re texting, when, how often.

Even if you disable it later, Facebook will keep this data for later reference.

But Facebook doesn’t stop there. The company knows a lot more about you than what you can find in your downloaded archive. The company asks you to share your location with your friends. The company tracks your web history on nearly every website on earth using embedded Javascript.

But my favorite thing is probably peer-to-peer payments. In some countries, you can pay back your friends using Messenger. It’s free! You just have to add your card to the app.

It turns out that Facebook also buys data about your offline purchases. The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger.

In other words, Messenger is a great Trojan horse to learn everything about you.

And the next time an app asks you to share your address book, there’s a 99-percent chance that this app is going to mine your address book to get new users, spam your friends, improve ad targeting and sell email addresses to marketing companies.

I could say the same thing about all the other permission popups on your phone. Be careful when you install an app from the Play Store or open an app for the first time on iOS. It’s easier to enable something if a feature doesn’t work without it than to find out that Facebook knows everything about you.

GDPR to the rescue

There’s one last hope. And that hope is GDPR. I encourage you to read TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas excellent explanation of GDPR to understand what the European regulation is all about.

Many of the misleading things that are currently happening at Facebook will have to change. You can’t force people to opt in like in Messenger. Data collection should be minimized to essential features. And Facebook will have to explain why it needs all this data to its users.

If Facebook doesn’t comply, the company will have to pay up to 4 percent of its global annual turnover. But that doesn’t stop you from actively reclaiming your online privacy right now.

You can’t be invisible on the internet, but you have to be conscious about what’s happening behind your back. Every time a company asks you to tap OK, think about what’s behind this popup. You can’t say that nobody told you.

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Tumblr confirms 84 accounts linked to Kremlin trolls

Tumblr has confirmed that Kremlin trolls were active on its platform during the 2016 US presidential elections.

In a blog post today the social platform writes that it is “taking steps to protect against future interference in our political conversation by state-sponsored propaganda campaigns”.

The company has also started emailing users who interacted with 84 accounts it now says it has linked to the Russian trollfarm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

In the blog post it says it identified the accounts last fall — and “notified law enforcement, terminated the accounts, and deleted their original posts”.

“Behind the scenes, we worked with the Department of Justice, and the information we provided helped indict 13 people who worked for the IRA,” it adds.

In an email sent to a user, which was passed to TechCrunch to review, the company informs the individual they “either followed one of [11] accounts linked to the IRA, or liked or reblogged one of their posts”.

“As part of our commitment to transparency, we want you to know that we uncovered and terminated 84 accounts linked to Internet Research Agency or IRA (a group closely tied to the the Russian government) posing as members of the Tumblr community,” the email begins.

“The IRA engages in electronic disinformation and propaganda campaigns around the world using phony social media accounts. When we uncovered these accounts, we notified law enforcement, terminated the accounts, and deleted their original posts.”

Last month Buzzfeed News — working with researcher, Jonathan Albright, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University — claimed to have unearthed substantial Kremlin troll activity on Tumblr’s meme-laden platform — identifying what they dubbed as “a powerful, largely unrevealed network of Russian trolls focused on black issues and activism” which they said dated back to early 2015.

The trolls were reported to be using Tumblr to push anti-Clinton messages, including by actively promoting Democrat rival Bernie Sanders.

Decrying racial injustice and police violence in the US was another theme of the Russian-linked content.

Since then The Daily Beast has also reported on leaked data from the IRA which also implied agents at the trollfarm had used Tumblr — and also Reddit — to spread political propaganda to target the 2016 US election.

Those IRA leaks suggested the IRA had created at least 21 Tumblr accounts — and included names replete with slang terms, including some accounts listed in the user email we’ve reviewed.

Tumblr, which is owned by TechCrunch’s parent company Oath, did not respond to an email we sent to their press office last month asking about possible Kremlin activity on its platform.

In today’s public post, the company writes: “As far as we can tell, the IRA-linked accounts were only focused on spreading disinformation in the U.S., and they only posted organic content. We didn’t find any indication that they ran ads.”

As well as emailing affected users, Tumblr says it will be keeping a public record of usernames linked to the IRA or “other state-sponsored disinformation campaigns”.

The full list of 84 Kremlin accounts on its public page is as follows:

It also suggests users step in and “correct the record” when they see others spreading misinformation, regardless of whether they believe it’s being done intentionally or not.

Concluding its email to the user who had unwittingly engaged with 11 of the identified IRA accounts, Tumblr adds: “We deleted the accounts but decided to leave up any reblog chains so that you can curate your own Tumblr to reflect your own personal views and perspectives.

“Democracy requires transparency and an informed electorate and we take our disclosure responsibility very seriously. We’ll be aggressively watching for disinformation campaigns in the future, take the appropriate action, and make sure you know about it.”

Asked how he feels to learn Kremlin trolls had unknowingly infiltrated his Tumblr feeds, the user told us: “It’s unsettling, although maybe not surprising, that we legitimize and signal boost bad actors on social platforms by ‘liking’ or reposting content that doesn’t appear to have any political agenda at first glance.”

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Elon Musk deletes own, SpaceX and Tesla Facebook pages after #deletefacebook

Elon Musk apparently wasn’t aware that his company SpaceX had a Facebook page. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO has responded to a comment on Twitter calling for him to take down the SpaceX, Tesla and Elon Musk official pages in support of the #deletefacebook movement by first acknowledging he didn’t know one existed, and then following up with promises that he would indeed take them down.

He’s done just that, as the SpaceX Facebook page is now gone, after having been live earlier today (as you can see from the screenshot included taken at around 12:10 PM ET).

As of this publishing, going to any of the above pages directs you to a message saying “Sorry, this content isn’t available right now” instead. That’s a quick turnaround, since Musk seems only to have found out these pages existed about 20 minutes prior to his taking them all offline.

Musk also responded to another comment on Twitter regarding his own and his companies’ prolific use of Instagram, which is of course owned by Facebook. The prolific entrepreneur noted that Instagram was “borderline,” since FB’s “influence is slowly creeping in,” but it seems like he’s okay with maintaining that presence for now.

Prior to their deletion, both the SpaceX and Tesla pages had over 2.6 million Likes and Follows, and super high engagement rates. You have to wonder whether Musk’s social media management employees cried a little when these went down.


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Telegram chalks up 200M MAUs for its messaging app

Another usage milestone for messaging platform Telegram: It’s announced passing 200M monthly active users “within the last 30 days”.

The platform passed 100M MAUs back in February 2016, when it held a lavish party at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona to celebrate the metric. At the time it said it was adding 350k new users daily and that there were 15 billion messages generated daily.

Since then Telegram has kept its powder fairly dry on the usage metrics front — presumably waiting to be able to announce 200M.

Its blog post is not revealing of any other details about usage. Rather founder Pavel Durov uses the space to give thanks to Telegram users for getting the company to the milestone, and takes a sideswipe at other “popular apps” which he says — unlike Telegram — monetize via advertising and/or pass data on to third parties.

Safe to say, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out who he might be thinking of

“Since the day we launched in August 2013 we haven’t disclosed a single byte of our users’ private data to third parties,” he writes (emphasis his). “We operate this way because we don’t regard Telegram as an organization or an app. For us, Telegram is an idea; it is the idea that everyone on this planet has a right to be free.”

We’ve reached out to Durov to see if he’ll give up any more Telegram usage tidbits and will update this post if so.

While he writes confidently now that “Telegram doesn’t… do deals with marketers, data miners or government agencies”, it’s not clear how much longer he’ll be able to stand up that claim — given the legal pressure being applied, for example, in Russia to hand over encryption keys or face being blocked. Telegram has also faced restrictions in Iran.

It told Bloomberg it plans to appeal the Russian ruling in a process that may last into the summer, according to company lawyer, Ramil Akhmetgaliev.

Durov also tweeted that: “Threats to block Telegram unless it gives up private data of its users won’t bear fruit. Telegram will stand for freedom and privacy.”

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Facebook hit with shareholder lawsuits over data misuse crisis

The lawsuits are piling up against Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data misuse and political ad targeting scandal.

According to SF Gate the company has been hit with four suits in federal courts so far this week following fresh revelations about how Facebook’s app permissions were abused to surreptitiously suck out vast amounts of user data.

One lawsuit filed yesterday in Northern California on behalf of a Facebook shareholder, Jeremiah Hallisey, alleges the company’s senior management “breached their fiduciary duties by failing to prevent the initial misappropriation [of user data by CA] and, after learning of it in 2015, failing to inform affected Facebook users or the public markets”.

The complaint names Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg; COO Sheryl Sandberg; and board members Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Reed Hastings, Erskine Bowles, Susan Desmond-Hellman and Jan Koum as defendants.

It notes Facebook has lost $50 billion in market capitalization since the data leak was disclosed, and flags reports that the FTC has launched an inquiry into Facebook’s conduct and whether it violated the terms of a 2011 consent decree that requires the company to notify users before sharing their data with third parties.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment but at the time of writing the company had not responded.

Last week the New York Times and the Observer of London reported revelations from former CA employee Chris Wylie, who detailed how working with a University of Cambridge psychology professor that had developed a survey app to run on Facebook, the political consultancy had been able to obtain vast amounts of user information — as many as 50 million US Facebook users’ profiles — without the vast majority of the users being aware their data had been harvested nor what it would be used for. The firm had been working for the Trump presidential campaign.

After the newspaper reports Facebook acknowledged that 270,000 people had downloaded the survey app.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also since gone on CNN to apologize. But the scope and scale of the data mishandling, coupled with Facebook’s failure to inform users when it found about the policy breach in 2015 have played very badly with markets and users alike…

“The recent revelations regarding Facebook’s actual practices with respect to user privacy and data security have severely damaged the Company’s reputation and imposed significant costs on it, including regulatory investigations, lost business, exposure to litigation, and other damages,” the complaint runs, before going on to allege that Facebook sought to “downplay concerns about access to user information” and “continued to assure investors that Facebook maintained effective” internal controls and systems that automatically detected ‘suspicious activity’”.

In a statement, Mark Molumphy, a partner with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy — the firm representing Hallisey — said: “Facebook’s apology doesn’t do much for the millions of Americans impacted by this conduct. It also doesn’t explain why Facebook executives waited three years to inform their loyal users and shareholders of the massive breach, especially on the heels of the FTC consent decree in 2011.  This action seeks accountability from those entrusted to safeguard our personal information and who seem to pay only lip service to the privacy concerns of their users.”

Also adding to the awkward questions for Facebook: Board member, Thiel, who supported Trump’s presidential bid, made a $1M financial donation to a Trump-supporting Super PAC, called Make America Number 1, in 2016 — which Mashable reports subsequently paid Cambridge Analytica $231,352 toward the end of the same year, per an FEC filing

Earlier this week, a proposed class action was also filed in California by a group of Facebook users seeking damages from the company for failing to protect their data.

On Tuesday, another shareholder lawsuit was filed. Gizmodo reports that complaint shareholder Fan Yuan has accused the company of making “materially false and/or misleading” claims about its handling of user data, and failing to disclose the ongoing situation has reduced the value of Facebook shares.

A fourth suit has been filed by another shareholder, Robert Casey. And Facebook will surely face more before the outrage over this epic fail privacy scandal burns out.

It also seems very likely that additional app permissions problems will come to light as Facebook has committed to a historical audit of any apps that were accessing large amounts of user data around the same time as CA was. Safe to say, it would be very unusual if the app used by CA to suck out Facebook profiles en mass was the only third party app to be acting out before Facebook acted on regulatory recommendations to tighten its app permissions, starting in 2014.

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