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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Snapchat’s new feature is aiming to turn Snap Map into a next-gen newsfeed

Snapchat may still be getting a lot of heat for their redesign, but the company is continuing to devote resources to build out Snap Map, the map-based feature it introduced last year.

A new feature called Map Explore will let you thumb through Snap Map updates in a more methodical way, so that you can see where your friends are and where they’re traveling. These statuses are generated by your friends’ movements rather than them physically typing out something on their own. Snap Map is importantly an opt-in feature, so if you’re understandably creeped out by the privacy implications, carry on.

The feature, first noted by The Verge, is furthering Snapchat’s idea of a map-based feed in Snap Map, but Map Explore integrates some more conventional UI elements and notifications to call users’ attention to items of interest that might otherwise get lost in the expanse. It’s just a start, but it’s definitely a necessary move. Expecting users to pan around a map is daunting enough for the immediate surrounding area, but when you’re trying to get users to see where your friends are vacationing or doing other cool stuff, it’s a lot more difficult.

The feed can give updates on the jet-setting habits of friends who are going on trips; it also can give location updates when they’re off to the beach or at another noteworthy spot. What’s perhaps most interesting is that Snapchat says they’ll be using the feature to push updates or breaking news updates to users based on areas of the Snap Map that are seeing a lot of traffic tied to news events.

The feature is going to be rolling out globally in the next few weeks.

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Sheryl Sandberg says Facebook leadership should have spoken sooner, is open to regulation

The days of silence from Facebook’s top executives after the company banned the political advisory service Cambridge Analytica from its platform were a mistake, according to Sheryl Sandberg.

In a brief interview on CNBC, Sandberg said that the decision for her and company chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg to wait before speaking publicly about the evolving crisis was a mistake.

“Sometimes we speak too slowly,” says Sandberg. “If I look back I would have had Mark and myself speak sooner.”

It was the only significant new word from the top level of leadership at Facebook following the full-court press made by Mark Zuckerberg yesterday.

The firestorm that erupted over Facebook’s decision to ban Cambridge Analytica — and the ensuing revelations that the user data of 50 million Facebook users were accessed by the political consulting and marketing firm without those users’ permission — has slashed Facebook stock and brought calls for regulation for social media companies.

Even as $60 billion of shareholder value disappeared, Zuckerberg and Sandberg remained quiet.

The other piece of information from Sandberg’s CNBC interview was her admission that the company is “open” to government regulation. But even that formulation suggests what is a basic misunderstanding at best and cynical contempt at worst for the role of government in the process of protecting Facebook’s users.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Facebook is open to regulation or not. If the government and U.S. citizens want more controls, the regulations will come.

And it looks like Facebook’s proposed solution will end up costing the company a pretty penny as well, as it brings in forensic auditors to track who else might have abused the data harvesting permissions that the company had put in place in 2007 and only sunset in 2015. 

Before the policy change, companies that aggressively acquired data from Facebook would come in for meetings with the social media company and discuss how the data was being used. One company founder — who was a power user of Facebook data — said that the company’s representatives had told him “If you weren’t pushing the envelope, we wouldn’t respect you.”

Collecting user data before 2015 was actually something the company encouraged, under the banner of increased utility for Facebook users — so that calendars could bring in information about the birthdays of friends, for instance.

Indeed, the Obama campaign used Facebook data from friends in much the same way as Cambridge Analytica, albeit with a far greater degree of transparency.

The issue is that users don’t know where their data went in the years before Facebook shut the door on collection of data from a users’ network of friends in 2015.

That’s what Facebook — and the government is trying to find out.


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Cambridge Analytica’s Nix recalled by fake news probe

Stock up on the popcorn — the currently suspended CEO of the firm at the center of a data handling and political ad-targeting storm currently embroiling Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, has been recalled by a UK parliamentary committee that’s running a probe into the impact of fake news because it’s unhappy with the quality of his prior answers.

The committee also says it has fresh questions for Alexander Nix in light of revelations that hit the headlines at the weekend about how a researcher’s app was used to gather personal information on about 270,000 Facebookers and 50 million of their friends, back in 2015 — data that was passed to CA in violation of Facebook’s policies.

Nix gave evidence to the DCMS committee on February 27, when he claimed: “We do not work with Facebook data, and we do not have Facebook data. We do use Facebook as a platform to advertise, as do all brands and most agencies, or all agencies, I should say. We use Facebook as a means to gather data. We roll out surveys on Facebook that the public can engage with if they elect to.”

That line is one of the claims the committee says it’s keen to press him on now. In a letter to Nix, it writes: “[T]here are a number of inconsistencies in your evidence to us of 27 February, notably your denial that your company received data from the Global Science Research company [aka the firm behind the survey app used by CA to harvest data on 50M Facebook users, according to The Observer].”

“We are also interested in asking you again about your claim that you “do not work with Facebook data, and […] do not have Facebook data,” it continues, warning: “Giving false statements to a Select Committee is a very serious matter.”

The self-styled ‘not a political consultancy’ but “technology-driven marketing firm” (and sometime “campaign consultancy and communication services” company) — which Nix also described in his last evidence session as “not a data miner… a data analytics company” — had its Facebook account suspended late last week for violating Facebook’s platform policies.

The UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, has also applied for a warrant to gain access to CA’s offices and servers — accusing the company of failing to hand over information the regulator had requested as part of a wider investigation it’s carrying out into the use of data analytics for political purposes.

CA is also now facing several legal challenges from Facebook users angry about how their data appears to have been misused.

We reached out to the company for comment on the DCMS recall. At the time of writing it had not responded.

Below are a few choice segments from Nix’s last evidence session in from of the committee — which we expect he will be asked to revisit should he agree to make a repeat appearance…

Q698       Rebecca Pow:… Could you expand a bit more on what those surveys are, what you are asking people and how you are gathering the data? Do you keep that data on surveys carried out on Facebook or does Facebook keep it?

Alexander Nix: I cannot speak to Facebook, but as far as I am aware the process works a bit like an opinion survey. If I want to find out how many people prefer red cars or yellow cars, I can post that question on Facebook and people can agree. They can opt in to answer a survey and they give their consent and they say, “I prefer a yellow car” and then we can collect that data. That is no different to running a telephone poll or a digital poll or a mail poll or any other form of poll. It is just a platform that allows you to engage with communities.

Q699       Rebecca Pow: Are they a big part of your data-gathering service?

Alexander Nix: When we work for brands, whether it is in the UK or in the US or elsewhere, we often feel the need to probe their customers and find out what they think about particular products or services. We might use Facebook as a means to engage with the general public to gather this data.

Q700       Simon Hart: Let me ask a very quick question on the Facebook survey opt-in option that you were describing. If you are asking somebody what kind of car they prefer and they opt in, does that facilitate access to other data that may be held by Facebook, which is irrelevant to car colour, or is it only the data you collect on car colour that is relevant?Nothing else that is part of the data held by Facebook would be available to you.

Alexander Nix: You are absolutely right—no other data. As far as I am aware, Facebook does not share any of its data. It is what is known as a walled garden, which keep its data—

Q701       Simon Hart: People are not in any way accidently giving you consent to access data other than that that you specifically asked for.

Alexander Nix: That is correct. People are not giving us consent and Facebook does not have a mechanism that allows third parties such as us to access its data on its customers.

Q702       Simon Hart: Even with its customers’ consent.

Alexander Nix: Even with its customers’ consent.

Chair: You said in your letter to me that, “Cambridge Analytica does not gather” data from Facebook.

Alexander Nix: From Facebook?

Chair: Yes.

Alexander Nix: That is correct.


Q718       Chair: The actual quote from the letter is: “On 8 February 2018 Mr Matheson implied that Cambridge Analytica ‘gathers data from users on Facebook.’ Cambridge Analytica does not gather such data.” But from what you said you do, do you not, through the surveys?

Alexander Nix: Yes, I think I can see what has happened here. What we were trying to say in our letter is that we do not gather Facebook data from Facebook users. We can use Facebook as an instrument to go out and run large-scale surveys of the users, but we do not gather Facebook data.

Q719       Chair: By that do you mean that you do not have access to data that is owned by Facebook?

Alexander Nix: Exactly.

Q720       Chair: You acquire data from Facebook users through them engaging with surveys and other things.

Alexander Nix: Exactly right.

Q721       Chair: Is your engagement, either directly or through any associate companies you may have, just through the placing of surveys or are there other tools or games or thingsthat are on Facebook that you use to gather data from Facebook users?

Alexander Nix: No, simply through surveys.


Q729       Chair: In that presentation I think there is a slide on data analytics where you describe that data is sourced from multiple sources and any marketing company will know that there are companies that specialise in data analytics to analyse consumer behaviour. I think on your chart you had logos of different companies. I think Experian was one and Nielsen was one. You had Facebook on there as well. Again, just to confirm on this, is that because you are highlighting the fact that you can gather data from Facebook?

Alexander Nix: Collect data through Facebook—that is exactly right, yes.

Q730       Chair: Does any of your data comes from Global Science Research company?

Alexander Nix: GSR?

Chair: Yes.

Alexander Nix: We had a relationship with GSR. They did some research for us back in 2014. That research proved to be fruitless and so the answer is no.

Q731       Chair: They have not supplied you with data or information?

Alexander Nix: No.

Q732       Chair: Your datasets are not based with information you have received from them?

Alexander Nix: No.

Chair: At all?

Alexander Nix: At all.

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Instagram will show more recent posts due to algorithm backlash

Instagram isn’t quite bringing back the chronological feed but it will show more new posts and stop suddenly bumping you to the top of the feed while you’re scrolling. “With these changes, your feed will feel more fresh, and you won’t miss the moments you care about” Instagram writes. It should be more coherent to browse the app now that you won’t get bumped to to the top of your feed and lose your place because your feed randomly refreshes, and there shouldn’t be as many disparate time stamps to juggle. Instead, you’ll be able to manually push a “New Posts” button when you want to purposefully refresh the feed.

Instagram switched from a reverse chronological feed to a relevancy-sorted feed in June 2016, leading to lots of grumbling from hardcore users. While it made sure you wouldn’t miss the most popular posts from your close friends, showing days-old posts made Instagram feel stale.

And for certain types of professional content creators and merchants, cutting their less likeable posts out of the feed — like their calls to buy their products or follow their other social accounts — was detrimental to their business. Instagram and Facebook moved to hide these posts over time because they can feel spammy. But at least since it’s just images and videos, Instagram they’re easier to scroll by if you now see more of them.

“Based on your feedback, we’re also making changes to ensure that newer posts are more likely to appear first in feed” the company writes. Instagram’s VP of product Kevin Weil’s tweet indicates Instagram really is listening to all the complaints about the algorithmic feed:

Interestingly, despite all the anger about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and the #DeleteFacebook movement, we haven’t seen nearly as many calls to #DeleteInstagram. In fact, the #DeleteFacebook trend seems to overlook the corporate parent company that owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus. Instead it focuses on just Facebook’s app, indicating that the scandal blowback might not be as much of an existential crisis.

If anything, the shift to the algorithmic feed caused much more of an uproar that any political issue or privacy scandal. While Facebook has become a core utility by bringing your real world identity to the Internet, Instagram is the pleasureful escape from that real world. And people get a lot more angry when you mess with their behavior patterns than when you highlight some abstract threat like misused personal data.

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Entrepreneur First, the London-based company builder backed by Greylock, expands to Hong Kong

When Silicon Valley’s Greylock Partners led Entrepreneur First‘s $12.4 million funding round in September, Greylock’s Reid Hoffman said he could see the company builder expanding to “20 or 30 or 40 cities, maybe even 50“. Since then, EF has expanded to Berlin, in addition to existing programmes in London and Singapore, and today the so-called ‘talent first’ investor is adding Hong Kong to the list.

Heading up EF’s Hong Kong office is former Airbnb and Google exec Lavina Tien, while the Hong Kong programme, which kicks off in July, will copy the Berlin format, meaning that it will run for 3 months per cohort, not 6 months as in London and Singapore. In addition, teams formed at EF Hong Kong will be eligible to participate in its Singapore demo day.

This is part of a new EF format that aims to make the company builder’s secret sauce, which sees it recruit founders ‘pre-team, pre-idea,’ a lot more scalable. So far, EF co-founder Matt Clifford tells me, it’s working out well.

He says the Berlin program was able to set up and recruit its first cohort in 9 weeks compared to the 9 months it took to get fully operational in Singapore, sounding extremely bullish about the future potential for more expansion.

That’s because the new shorter formula is designed to let EF focus locally on the part most unique to the organisation — persuading the best technical and domain talent to try their hand at entrepreneurship and in turn matching them with a complementary co-founder so that they can form a startup that might otherwise never exist.

Clifford also says this is about doubling down on EF’s Asia ambitions. He notes that, similar to other EF outposts, Hong Kong is a burgeoning but perhaps latent tech ecosystem with good education — such as Hong Kong University for Science and Technology, the University of Hong Kong, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong — and access to capital that is beginning to turn its attention locally rather than simply investing abroad.

Adds EF co-founder Alice Bentinck: “We believe that there are a handful of exceptional technologists globally who have the skills and ambition to build the next generation of breakout technology companies. We know that we will find some of them in Hong Kong, just as we have in London, Singapore and Berlin”.

Meanwhile, Clifford won’t be drawn into where EF might expand next, although he doesn’t rule out adding a further programme this year. If I had to guess, I’d say Paris is a good bet, but in all honestly there are quite a number of cities that could tick the EF box.

Separately, I’m hearing that the company builder is raising a new investment fund so that it can continue the strategy of doing follow-on investments at seed and Series A into the most promising companies it helps build, across all of the locations it now operates. As always, watch this space.

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