Google-incubated AdLingo uses chatbot integration to create conversational ads

“Conversational marketing” is a phrase that I hear a lot, but when the team at AdLingo uses it, they mean something specific — namely, bringing chatbots and other conversational assistants into online advertising.

The startup is part of Google’s Area 120, and co-founder and general manager Vic Fatnani said he’s worked on advertising at Google for more than a decade.

“One of the things we saw happening was this paradigm shift with users and consumers going towards more of a conversational medium,” he said. “Everything is becoming more conversational, whether it’s through devices such as your phone, your speaker and eventually your car … We asked ourselves, ‘Hey if this shift is happening, why can’t marketing be more conversational?’”

You may be wondering whether consumers are really clamoring to interact with ads, but Fatnani said he and his co-founder Dario Rapisardi were determined not to build “a solution that needs a problem,” so they spent months talking to marketers and chatbot developers.

Apparently, when they asked about what challenges everyone was facing, the big answer was “discovery.” As Fatnani put it, “Hey, I have this amazing conversational assistant, but it’s really hard for me to bring this in front of audience.”

General Manager Vic Fatnani, Head of Partnerships Stephanie Lyras, Head of Engineering Dario Rapisardi

In his view, advertising provides the perfect medium to solve this problem. Instead of building a chatbot and just letting consumers find it on their own website or app, brands can integrate it into their advertising, allowing people who see the ad to ask questions and provide feedback.

“Imagine you want to launch a new soda drink in Brazil, a market that you’ve never entered before,” he added. “Imagine you can now run a conversational display ad and actually have people vote to say what kind of flavor would you like to drink.”

Or for a real example, there’s the Allstar Kia experience that you can see at the top of this post. Che company’s director of internet marketing Chris Ferrall said in a statement that “AdLingo lets our customers browse inventory, determine car trade-in value and make an appointment with a salesperson — all within an engaging, interactive experience that meets them right where they are.”

To be clear, Adlingo isn’t building the chatbots. Instead, Fatnani said, “The brands and developers bring the conversational experience to us, and we distribute that experience all over the web.”

To do this, the platform integrates with chatbot tools like Dialogue Flow, Microsoftbot Framework, LiveEngage and Blip. It’s also partnered with Valassis Digital and LivePerson (the Kia campaign happened through Valassis).

How does this all fit into Google’s larger plans for advertising? Fatnani said it doesn’t, at least not yet.

“We are completely separate efforts in terms of our product roadmap and what we execute,” he said, later adding, “At this point, we just want to make sure we’re really, really focused on our customer.”

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…

TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?


[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]


[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.

Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

Audit Facebook and overhaul competition law, say MEPs responding to breach scandals

After holding a series of hearings in the wake of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal this summer, and attending a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg himself in May, the European Union parliament’s civil liberties committee has called for an update to competition rules to reflect what it dubs “the digital reality”, urging EU institutions to look into the “possible monopoly” of big tech social media platforms.

Top level EU competition law has not touched on the social media axis of big tech yet, with the Commission concentrating recent attention on mobile chips (Qualcomm); and mobile and ecommerce platforms (mostly Google; but Amazon’s use of merchant data is in its sights too); as well as probing Apple’s tax structure in Ireland.

But last week Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us that closer working between privacy regulators and the EU’s Competition Commission is on the cards, as regional lawmakers look to evolve their oversight frameworks to respond to growing ethical concerns about use and abuse of big data, and indeed to be better positioned to respond to fast-paced technology-fuelled change.

Local EU antitrust regulators, including in Germany and France, have also been investigating the Google, Facebook adtech duopoly on several fronts in recent years.

The Libe committee’s call is the latest political call to spin up and scale up antitrust effort and attention around social media. 

The committee also says it wants to see much greater accountability and transparency on “algorithmic-processed data by any actor, be it private or public” — signalling a belief that GDPR does not go far enough on that front.

Libe committee chair and rapporteur, MEP Claude Moraes, has previously suggested the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal could help inform and shape an update to Europe’s ePrivacy rules, which remain at the negotiation stage with disagreements over scope and proportionality.

But every big tech data breach and security scandal lends weight to the argument that stronger privacy rules are indeed required.

In yesterday’s resolution, the Libe committee also called for an audit of the advertising industry on social media — echoing a call made by the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, this summer for an ‘ethical pause‘ on the use of online ads for political purposes.

The ICO made that call right after announcing it planned to issue Facebook with the maximum fine possible under UK data protection law — again for the Cambridge Analytica breach.

While the Cambridge Analytica scandal — in which the personal information of as many as 87 million Facebook users was extracted from the platform without the knowledge or consent of every person, and passed to the now defunct political consultancy (which used it to create psychographic profiles of US voters for election campaigning purposes) — has triggered this latest round of political scrutiny of the social media behemoth, last month Facebook revealed another major data breach, affecting at least 50M users — underlining the ongoing challenge it has to live up to claims of having ‘locked the platform down’.

In light of both breaches, the Libe committee has now called for EU bodies to be allowed to fully audit Facebook — to independently assess its data protection and security practices.

Buttarelli also told us last week that it’s his belief none of the tech giants are directing adequate resource at keeping user data safe.

And with Facebook having already revealed a second breach that’s potentially even larger than Cambridge Analytica fresh focus and political attention is falling on the substance of its security practices, not just its claims.

While the Libe committee’s MEPs say they have taken note of steps Facebook made in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to try to improve user privacy, they point out it has still not yet carried out the promised full internal audit.

Facebook has never said how long this historical app audit will take. Though it has given some progress reports, such as detailing additional suspicious activity it has found to date, with 400 apps suspended at the last count. (One app, called myPersonality, also got banned for improper data controls.)

The Libe committee is now urging Facebook to allow the EU Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) and the European Data Protection Board, which plays a key role in applying the region’s data protection rules, to carry out “a full and independent audit” — and present the findings to the European Commission and Parliament and national parliaments.

It has also recommended that Facebook makes “substantial modifications to its platform” to comply with EU data protection law.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the recommendations — including specifically asking the company whether it’s open to an external audit of its platform.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to our question but we’ll update this report with any response.

Commenting in a statement, Libe chair Moraes said: “This resolution makes clear that we expect measures to be taken to protect citizens’ right to private life, data protection and freedom of expression. Improvements have been made since the scandal, but, as the Facebook data breach of 50 million accounts showed just last month, these do not go far enough.”

The committee has also made a series of proposals for reducing the risk of social media being used as an attack vector for election interference — including:

  • applying conventional “off-line” electoral safeguards, such as rules on transparency and limits to spending, respect for silence periods and equal treatment of candidates;
  • making it easy to recognize online political paid advertisements and the organisation behind them;
  • banning profiling for electoral purposes, including use of online behaviour that may reveal political preferences;
  • social media platforms should label content shared by bots and speed up the process of removing fake accounts;
  • compulsory post-campaign audits to ensure personal data are deleted;
  • investigations by member states with the support of Eurojust if necessary, into alleged misuse of the online political space by foreign forces.

A couple of weeks ago, the Commission outted a voluntary industry Code of Practice aimed at tackling online disinformation which several tech platforms and adtech companies had agreed to sign up to, and which also presses for action in some of the same areas — including fake accounts and bots.

However the code is not only voluntary but does not bind signatories to any specific policy steps or processes so it looks like its effectiveness will be as difficult to quantify as its accountability will lack bite.

A UK parliamentary committee which has also been probing political disinformation this year also put out a report this summer with a package of proposed measures — with some similar ideas but also suggesting a levy on social media to ‘defend democracy’.

Meanwhile Facebook itself has been working on increasing transparency around advertisers on its platform, and putting in place some authorization requirements for political advertisers (though starting in the US first).

But few politicians appear ready to trust that the steps Facebook is taking will be enough to avoid a repeat of, for example, the mass Kremlin propaganda smear campaign that targeted the 2016 US presidential election.

The Libe committee has also urged all EU institutions, agencies and bodies to verify that their social media pages, and any analytical and marketing tools they use, “should not by any means put at risk the personal data of citizens”.

And it goes as far as suggesting that EU bodies could even “consider closing their Facebook accounts” — as a measure to protect the personal data of every individual contacting them.

The committee’s full resolution was passed by 41 votes to 10 and 1 abstention. And will be put to a vote by the full EU Parliament during the next plenary session later this month.

In it, the Libe also renews its call for the suspension of the EU-US Privacy Shield.

The data transfer arrangement, which is used by thousands of businesses to authorize transfers of EU users’ personal data across the Atlantic, is under growing pressure ahead of an annual review this month, as the Trump administration has failed entirely to respond as EU lawmakers had hoped their US counterparts would at the time of the agreement being inked in the Obama era, back in 2016.

The EU parliament also called for Privacy Shield to be suspended this summer. And while the Commission did not act on those calls, pressure has continued to mount from MEPs and EU consumer and digital and civil rights bodies.

During the Privacy Shield review process this month the Commission will be pressuring US counterparts to try to gain concessions that it can sell back home as ‘compliance’.

But without very major concessions — and who would bank on that, given the priorities of the current US administration — the future of the precariously placed mechanism looks increasingly uncertain.

Even as more oversight coming down the pipe to rule social media platforms looks all but inevitable in Europe.

ePrivacy: An overview of Europe’s other big privacy rule change

Gather round. The EU has a plan for a big update to privacy laws that could have a major impact on current Internet business models.

Um, I thought Europe just got some new privacy rules?

They did. You’re thinking of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which updated the European Union’s 1995 Data Protection Directive — most notably by making the penalties for compliance violations much larger.

But there’s another piece of the puzzle — intended to ‘complete’ GDPR but which is still in train.

Or, well, sitting in the sidings being mobbed by lobbyists, as seems to currently be the case.

It’s called the ePrivacy Regulation.

ePrivacy Regulation, eh? So I guess that means there’s already an ePrivacy Directive then…

Indeed. Clever cookie. That’s the 2002 ePrivacy Directive to be precise, which was amended in 2009 (but is still just a directive).

Remind me what’s the difference between an EU Directive and a Regulation again… 

A regulation is a more powerful legislative instrument for EU lawmakers as it’s binding across all Member States and immediately comes into legal force on a set date, without needing to be transposed into national laws. In a word it’s self-executing.

Whereas, with a directive, Member States get a bit more flexibility because it’s up to them how they implement the substance of the thing. They could adapt an existing law or create a new one, for example.

With a regulation the deliberation happens among EU institutions and, once that discussion and negotiation process has concluded, the agreed text becomes law across the bloc — at the set time, and without necessarily requiring further steps from Member States.

So regulations are powerful.

So there’s more legal consistency with a regulation? 

In theory. Greater harmonization of data protection rules is certainly an impetus for updating the EU’s legal framework around privacy.

Although, in the case of GDPR, Member States did in fact need to update their national data protections laws to make certain choices allowed for in the framework, and identify competent national data enforcement agencies. So there’s still some variation.

Strengthening the rules around privacy and making enforcement more effective are other general aims for the ePrivacy Regulation.

Europe has had robust privacy rules for many years but enforcement has been lacking.

Another point of note: Where data protection law is concerned, national agencies need to be properly resourced to be able to enforce rules, or that could undermine the impact of regulation.

It’s up to Member States to do this, though GDPR essentially requires it (and the Commission is watching).

Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, sums up the current resourcing situation for national data protection agencies, as: “Not bad, not enough. But much better than before.”

But why does Europe need another digital privacy law. Why isn’t GDPR enough? 

There is some debate about that, and not everyone agrees with the current approach. But the general idea is that GDPR deals with general (personal) data.

Whereas the proposed update to ePrivacy rules is intended to supplement GDPR — addressing in detail the confidentiality of electronic communications, and the tracking of Internet users more broadly.

So the (draft) ePrivacy Regulation covers marketing, and a whole raft of tracking technologies (including but not just cookies); and is intended to combat problems like spam, as well as respond to rampant profiling and behavioral advertising by requiring transparency and affirmative consent.

One major impulse behind the reform of the rules is to expand the scope to not just cover telcos but reflect how many communications now travel ‘over the top’ of cellular networks, via Internet services.

This means ePrivacy could apply to all sorts of tech firms in future, be it Skype, Facebook, Google, and quite possibly plenty more — given how many apps and services include some ability for users to communicate with each other.

But scope remains one of the contested areas, with critics arguing the regulation could have a disproportionate impact, if — for example — every app with a chat function is going to be ruled.

On the communications front, the updated rules would not just cover message content but metadata too (to respond to how that gets tracked). Aka pieces of data that might not be personal data per se yet certainly pertain to privacy once they are wrapped up in and/or associated with people’s communications.

Although metadata tracking is also used for analytics, for wider business purposes than just profiling users, so you can see the challenge of trying to fashion rules to fit around all this granular background activity.

Simplifying problematic existing EU cookie consent rules — which have also been widely mocked for generating pretty pointless web page clutter — has also been a core part of the Commission’s intention for the update.

EU lawmakers also want the regulation to cover machine to machine comms — to regulate privacy around the still emergent IoT (Internet of Things), to keep pace with the rise of smart home technologies.

Those are some of the high level aims but there have been multiple proposed texts and revisions at this point so goalposts have been shifting around.

So whereabouts in the process are we?

The Commission’s original reform proposal came out in January 2017. More than a year and a half later EU institutions are still stuck trying to reach a consensus. It’s not even 100% certain whether ePrivacy will pass or founder in the attempt at this point.

The underlying problem is really the scope of exploitation of consumers’ online activity going on in the areas ePrivacy seeks to regulate — which is now firmly baked into dominant digital business models — so trying to rule over all that after the fact of mainstream operational execution is a recipe for co-ordinated industry objection and frenzied lobbying. Of which there has been an awful lot.

At the same time, consumer protection groups in Europe are more clear than ever that ePrivacy should be a vehicle for further strengthening the data protection framework put in place by GDPR — pointing out, for example, that data misuse scandals like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica debacle show that data-driven business models need closer checks to protect consumers and ensure people’s rights are respected.

Safe to say, the two sides couldn’t be further apart.

Like GDPR, the proposed ePrivacy Regulation would also apply to companies offering services in Europe not only those based in Europe. And it also includes major penalties for violations (of up to 2% or 4% of a company’s global annual turnover) — similarly intended to bolster enforcement and support more consistently applied EU privacy rules.

But given the complexity of the proposals, and disagreements over scope and approach, having big fines baked in further complicates the negotiations — because lobbyists can argue that substantial financial penalties should not be attached to ‘ambiguous’ laws and disputed regulatory mechanisms.

The high cost of getting the update wrong is not so much concentrating minds as causing alarms to be yanked and brakes applied. With the risk of no progress at all looking like an increasing possibility.

One thing is clear: The existing ePrivacy rules are outdated and it’s not helpful to have old rules undermining a state-of-the-art data protection framework.

Telcos have also rightly complained it’s not fair for tech giants to be able to operate messaging empires without the same compliance burdens they have.

Just don’t assume telcos love the proposed update either. It’s complicated.

Sounds very messy. 


EU lawmakers could probably have dealt with updating both privacy-related directives together, or even in one ‘super regulation’, but they decided to separate the work to try to simplify the process. In retrospect that looks like a mistake.

On the plus side, it means GDPR is now locked in place — with Buttarelli saying the new framework is intended to stand for as long as its predecessor.

Less good: One shiny worldclass data protection framework is having to work alongside a set of rules long past their sell-by-date.

So, so much for consistency.

Buttarelli tells us he thinks it was a mistake not to do both updates together, describing the blocks being thrown up to try to derail ePrivacy reform as “unacceptable”.

“I would like to say very clearly that the EU made a mistake in not updating earlier the rules for confidentiality for electronic communications at the same time as general data protection,” he told us during an interview this week, about GDPR enforcement, datas ethics and the future of EU privacy regulation.

He argues the patchwork of new and old rules “doesn’t work for data controllers” either, as they’re the ones saddled with dealing with the legal inconsistency.

As Europe’s data protection supervisor, Buttarelli is of course trying to apply pressure on key parties — to “get to the table and start immediately trilogue negotiations to identify a sustainable outcome”.

But the nature of lawmaking across a bloc of 28 Member States is often slow and painful. Certainly no one entity can force progress; it must be achieved via negotiated consensus and compromise across the various institutions and entities.

And when interest groups are so far apart, well, it’s sweating toil to put it mildly.

Entities that don’t want to play ball with a particular legal reform issue can sometimes also throw a delaying spanner in the works by impeding negotiations. Which is what looks to be going on with ePrivacy right now.

The EU parliament confirmed its negotiating mandate on the reform almost a year ago now. But MEPs were then stuck waiting for Member States to take a position and get around the discussion table.

Except Member States seemingly weren’t so keen. Some were probably a bit preoccupied with Brexit.

Currently implicated as an ePrivacy blocker: Austria, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council — meaning it gets to set priorities, and can thus kick issues into the long grass (as its right-wing government appears to be doing with ePrivacy). And so the wait goes on.

It now looks like a bit of a divide and conquer situation for anti-privacy lobbyists, who — having failed to derail GDPR — are throwing all their energies at blocking and even derailing/diluting the ePrivacy reform.

Some Member States appear to be trying to attack ePrivacy to weaken the overarching framework of GDPR too. So yes, it’s got very messy indeed.

There’s an added complication around timing because the EU parliament is up for re-election next Spring, and a few months after that the executive Commission will itself turn over, as the current president does not intend to seek reappointment. So it will be all change for the EU, politically speaking, in 2019.

A reconfigured political landscape could then change the entire conversation around ePrivacy. So the current delay could prove fatal unless agreement can be reached in early 2019.

Some EU lawmakers had hoped the reform could be done and dusted in in time to come into force at the same time as GDPR, this May.

That was certainly a major miscalculation.

But what’s all the disagreement about?

That depends on who you ask. There are many contested issues, depending on the interests of the group you’re talking to.

Media and publishing industry associations are terrified about what they say ePrivacy could do to their ad-supported business models, given their reliance on cookies and tracking technologies to try to monetize free content via targeted ads — and so claim it could destroy journalism as we know it if consumers need to opt-in to being tracked.

The ad industry is also of course screaming about ePrivacy as if its hair’s on fire. Big tech included, though it has generally preferred to lobby via proxies on this issue.

Anything that could impede adtech’s ability to track and thus behaviourally target ads at web users is clearly enemy number one, given the current modus operandi. So ePrivacy is a major lobbying target for the likes of the IAB who don’t want it to upend their existing business models.

Even telcos aren’t happy, despite the potential of the regulation to even the playing field somewhat with tech giants — suggesting they will end up with double the regulatory burden, as well as moaning it will make it harder for them to make the necessary investments to roll out 5G networks.

Plus, as I say, there also seems to be some efforts to try to use ePrivacy as a vector to attack and weaken GDPR itself.

Buttarelli had comments to make on this front too, describing some data controllers as being in post-GDPR “revenge mode”.

“They want to move in sort of a vendetta, vendetta — and get back what they lose with the GDPR. But while I respect honest lobbying about which pieces of ePrivacy are not necessary I think ePrivacy will help first small businesses, and not necessarily the big tech startups. And where done properly ePrivacy may give more power to individuals. It may make harder for big tech to snoop on private conversations without meaningful consent,” he told us, appealing to Europe’s publishing industry to get behind the reform process, rather than applying pressure at the Member State level to try to derail it — given the media hardly feels well done by by big tech.

He even makes this appeal to local adtech players — which aren’t exactly enamoured with the dominance of big tech either.

“I see space for market incentives,” he added. “For advertisers and publishers to, let’s say, re-establish direct relations with their readers and customers. And not have to accept the terms dictated by the major platform intermediaries. So I don’t see any other argument to discourage that we have a deal before the elections in May next year of the European legislators.”

There’s no doubt this is a challenging sell though, given how embedded all these players are with the big platforms. So it remains to be seen whether ePrivacy can be talked back on track.

Major progress is certainly very unlikely before 2019.

I’m still not sure why it’s so important though.  

The privacy of personal communications is a fundamental right in Europe. So there’s a need for the legal framework to defend against technological erosion of citizens’ rights.

Add to that, a big part of the problem with the modern adtech industry — aside from the core lack of genuine consent — is its opacity. Who’s doing what; for what specific purposes; and with what exact outcomes.

Existing European privacy rules like GDPR mean there’s more transparency than there’s ever been about what’s going on — if you know and/or can be bothered to dig down into privacy policies and purposes.

If you do, you might, for example, discover a very long list of companies that your data is being shared with (and even be able to switch off that sharing) — entities with weird sounding names like Outbrain and OpenX.

A privacy policy might even state a per company purpose like ‘Advertising exchange’ and ‘Advertising’. Or ‘Customer interaction’, whatever that means.

Thing is, it’s often still very difficult for a consumer to understand what a lot of these companies are really doing with their data.

Thanks to current EU laws, we now have the greatest level of transparency there has ever been about the mechanisms underpinning Internet business models. But yet so much remains murky.

The average Internet user is very likely none the wiser. Can profiling them without proper consent really be fair?

GDPR sets out an expectation of privacy by design and default. So, following that principle, you could argue that cookie consent, for example, should be default opt-out — and that any website must be required to gain affirmative opt in from a visitor for any tracking cookies. The adtech industry would certainly disagree though.

The original ePrivacy proposal even had a bit of a mixed approach to consent which was accused of being too overbearing for some technologies and not strong enough for others.

It’s not just creepy tech giants implicated here either. Publishers and the media (TechCrunch included) are very much caught up in the unpleasant tracking mess, complicit in darting users with cookies and trackers to try to increase what remain fantastically low conversation rates for digital ads.

Most of the time, most Internet users ignore most ads. So — with horribly wonky logic — the behavioral advertising industry, which has been able to grow like a weed because EU privacy rights have not previously been actively enforced, has made it its mission to suck up (and indeed buy up) more and more user data to try to move the ad conversion needle a fraction.

The media is especially desperate because the web has also decimated traditional business models. And European lawmakers can be very sensitive to publishing industry concerns (for e.g., see their backing of controversial copyright reforms which publishers have been pushing for).

Meanwhile Google and Facebook are gobbling up the majority of online ad spending, leaving publishers fighting for crumbs and stuck having to do businesses with the platforms that have so sorely disrupted them.

Platforms they can’t at all control but which are now so popular and powerful they can (and do) algorithmically control the visibility of publishers’ content.

It’s not a happy combination. Well, unless you’re Facebook or Google.

Meanwhile, for web users just wanting to go about their business and do all the stuff people can (and sometimes need to do) online, things have got very bad indeed.

Unless you ignore the fact you’re being creeped on almost all the time, by snoopy entities that double as intelligence traders, selling info on what you like or don’t, so that an unseen adtech collective can create highly detailed profiles of you to try and manipulate your online transactions and purchasing decisions. With what can sometimes be discriminatory impacts.

The rise in popularity of ad blockers illustrates quite how little consumers enjoy being ad-stalked around the Internet.

More recently tracker blockers have been springing up to try to beat back the adtech vampire octopus which also lards the average webpage with myriad data-sucking tentacles, impeding page load times and gobbling bandwidth in the process, in addition to abusing people’s privacy.

There’s also out-and-out malicious stuff to be found already here too as the increasing complexity, opacity and sprawl of the adtech industry’s surveillance apparatus (combined with its general lack of interest in and/or focus on security) offers rich and varied vectors of cyber attack.

And so ads and gnarly page elements sometimes come bundled or injected with actual malware as hackers exploit all this stuff for their own ends and launch man in the middle attacks to grab user data as it’s being routinely siphoned off for tracking purposes.

It’s truly a layer cake of suck.


The ePrivacy Regulation could, in theory, help to change this, by helping to support alternative business models that don’t use people-tracking as their fuel by putting the emphasis back where it should be: Respect for privacy.

The (seemingly) radical idea underlying all these updates to European privacy legislation is that if you increase consumers’ trust in online services by respecting people’s privacy you can actually grease the wheel of ecommerce and innovation because web users will be more comfortable doing stuff online because they won’t feel like they’re under creepy surveillance.

More than that — you can lay down a solid foundation of trust for the next generation of disruptive technologies to build on.

Technologies like IoT and driverless cars.

Because, well, if consumers hate to feel like websites are spying on them, imagine how disgusted they’ll be to realize their fridge, toaster, kettle and TV are all complicit in snitching. Ditto their connected car.

‘I see you’re driving past McDonald’s. Great news! They have a special on those chocolate donuts you scoffed a whole box of last week…’



So what are ePrivacy’s chances at this point? 

It’s hard to say but things aren’t looking great right now.

Buttarelli describes himself as “relatively optimistic” about getting an agreement by May, i.e. before the EU parliament elections, but that may well be wishful thinking.

Even if he’s right there would likely still need to be an implementation period before it comes into force — so new rules aren’t likely up and running before 2020.

Yet he also describes the ePrivacy Regulation as “an essential missing piece of the jigsaw”.

Getting that piece in place is not going to be easy though.

Yes Facebook is using your 2FA phone number to target you with ads

Facebook has confirmed it does in fact use phone numbers that users provided it for security purposes to also target them with ads.

Specifically a phone number handed over for two factor authentication (2FA) — a security technique that adds a second layer of authentication to help keep accounts secure.

Facebook’s confession follows a story Gizmodo ran a story yesterday, related to research work carried out by academics at two U.S. universities who ran a study in which they say they were able to demonstrate the company uses pieces of personal information that individuals did not explicitly provide it to, nonetheless, target them with ads.

While it’s been — if not clear, then at least evident — for a number of years that Facebook uses contact details of individuals who never personally provided their information for ad targeting purposes (harvesting people’s personal data by other means, such as other users’ mobile phone contact books which the Facebook app uploads), the revelation that numbers provided to Facebook by users in good faith, for the purpose of 2FA, are also, in its view, fair game for ads has not been so explicitly ‘fessed up to before.

Some months ago Facebook did say that users who were getting spammed with Facebook notifications to the number they provided for 2FA was a bug. “The last thing we want is for people to avoid helpful security features because they fear they will receive unrelated notifications,” Facebook then-CSO Alex Stamos wrote in a blog post at the time.

Apparently not thinking to mention the rather pertinent additional side-detail that it’s nonetheless happy to repurpose the same security feature for ad targeting.

Because $$$s, presumably.

We asked Facebook to confirm this is indeed what it’s doing — to make doubly doubly sure. Because, srsly wtaf. And it sent us a statement confirming that it repurposes digits handed to it by people wanting to secure their accounts to target them with marketing.

Here’s the statement, attributed to a Facebook spokesperson: “We use the information people provide to offer a better, more personalized experience on Facebook, including ads. We are clear about how we use the information we collect, including the contact information that people upload or add to their own accounts. You can manage and delete the contact information you’ve uploaded at any time.”

A spokesman also told us that users can opt out of this ad-based repurposing of their security digits by not using phone number based 2FA. (Albeit, the company only added the ability to do non-mobile phone based 2FA back in May, so anyone before then was all outta luck.)

On the ‘shadow profiles’ front — aka Facebook maintaining profiles of non-users based on the data it has been able to scrape about them from users and other data sources — the company has also been less than transparent.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg feigned confusion when questioned about the practice by US lawmakers earlier this year — claiming it only gathers data on non-users for “security purposes”.

Well it seems Facebook is also using the (valid) security concerns of actual users to extend its ability to target individuals with ads — by using numbers provided for 2FA to also carry out ad targeting.

Safe to say criticism of the company has been swift and sharp.

Soon Facebook will also be using behind-the-scenes tech means to target ads at WhatsApp users — despite also providing a robust encrypted security wrapper around their actual messages.

Stamos — now Facebook’s ex-CSO — has also defended its actions on that front.

Google’s blanket ban of cryptocurrency ads ends next month

Google is rolling back its ban on cryptocurrency advertisements – following a similar move made by Facebook earlier this summer, CNBC reports. Google in March was among the first of the major platforms to announce it would no longer run ban cryptocurrency ads, due to an abundance of caution around an industry where there’s so much potential for consumer harm.

Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat had also banned cryptocurrency ads, for similar reasons.

But Facebook moved away from its blanket ban this June, when it said it would no longer ban all cryptocurrency ads, but would rather allow those from “pre-approved advertisers” instead. It excluded ads that promoted binary options and initial coin offerings (ICOs), however.

Google is now following suit with its own policy change, it appears.

Google’s policy still bans ICOs, wallets and trading advice, CNBC reports, citing Google’s updated policy page which points to a list of banned products.

But the October 2018 policy update says that “regulated cryptocurrency exchanges” will be allowed to advertise in the U.S. and Japan.

To do so, advertisers will have to be certified with Google for the specific country where their ads will run, a process that begins in October. The policy will apply to all accounts that advertise these types of financial products, Google says.

Banning cryptocurrency ads on the part of the major platforms was a good step in terms of consumer protection, due to the amount of fraud and spam in the industry. According to the FTC, consumers lost $532 million to cryptocurrency-related scams in the first two months of 2018. An agency official also warned that consumers could lose more than $3 billion by the end of the year, because of these problems.

But for ad-dependent platforms like Facebook and Google, there’s so much money to be made here. It’s clear they wanted to find a way to let some of these advertisers back in. Google parent Alphabet makes around 86% of its total revenue from ads, CNBC noted, and booked over $54 billion in ad revenue in the first half of the year.

Google has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Seven reasons not to trust Facebook to play cupid

This week Facebook has launched a major new product play, slotting an algorithmic dating service inside its walled garden as if that’s perfectly normal behavior for an ageing social network.

Insert your [dad dancing GIF of choice] right here.

Facebook getting into dating looks very much like a mid-life crisis — as a veteran social network desperately seeks a new strategy to stay relevant in an age when app users have largely moved on from social network ‘lifecasting’ to more bounded forms of sharing, via private messaging and/or friend groups inside dedicated messaging and sharing apps.

The erstwhile Facebook status update has long been usurped by the Snapchat (and now Instagram) Story as the social currency of choice for younger app users. Of course Facebook owns the latter product too, and has mercilessly cloned Stories. But it hardly wants its flagship service to just fade away into the background like the old fart it actually is in Internet age terms.

Not if it can reinvigorate the product with a new purpose — and so we arrive at online dating.

Facebook — or should that be ‘Datebook’ now?! — is starting its dating experiment in Colombia, as its beta market. But the company clearly has ambitious designs on becoming a major global force in the increasingly popular online dating arena — to challenge dedicated longtime players like eHarmony and OkCupid, as well as the newer breed of more specialized dating startups, such as female-led app, Bumble.

Zuckerberg is not trying to compete with online dating behemoth Tinder, though. Which Facebook dismisses as a mere ‘hook up’ app — a sub category it claims it wants nothing to do with.

Rather it’s hoping to build something more along the lines of ‘get together with friends of your friends who’re also into soap carving/competitive dog grooming/extreme ironing’ than, for e.g., the raw spank in the face shock of ‘Bang with Friends‘. (The latter being the experimental startup which tried, some six years ago, to combine Facebook and sex — before eventually exiting to a Singapore-based dating app player, Paktor, never to be heard of again. Or, well, not until Facebook decided to get into the dating game and reminded us all how we lol’d about it.)

Mark Zuckerberg’s company doesn’t want to get into anything smutty, though. Oh no, no, NO! No sex please, we’re Facebook!

Facebook Dating has been carefully positioned to avoid sounding like a sex app. It’s being flogged as a tasteful take on the online dating game, with — for instance — the app explicitly architected not to push existing friends together via suggestive matching (though you’ll just have to hope you don’t end up being algorithmically paired with any exes, which judging by Facebook’s penchant for showing users ‘photo memories’ of past stuff with exes may not pan out so well… ). And no ability to swap photo messages with mutual matches in case, well, something pornographic were to pass through.

Facebook is famously no fan of nudes. Unsurprisingly, then, nor is its buttoned up dating app. Only ‘good, old-fashioned wholesome’ text-based chat-up lines (related to ‘good clean pieces of Facebook content’) here please.

If you feel moved to text an up-front marriage proposal — feeling 100% confident in Facebook’s data scientists’ prowess in reading the social media tea leaves and plucking your future life partner out of the mix — its algorithms will probably smile on that though.

The company’s line is that dating will help fulfil its new mission of encouraging ‘time well spent’ — by helping people forge more meaningful (new) relationships thanks to the power of its network (and the data it sucks out of it).

This mission is certainly an upgrade on Facebook’s earlier and baser interest in just trying to connect every human on planet Earth to every other human on planet Earth in some kind of mass data-swinging orgy — regardless of the ethical and/or moral consequences (as Boz memorably penned it), as if it was trying to channel the horror-loving spirit of Pasolini’s Salò. Or, well, a human centipede.

But that was then. These days, in its mid teens, Facebook wants to be seen as grown up and a bit worth. So its take on dating looks a lot more ‘marriage material’ than ‘casual encounters’. Though, well, products don’t always pan out how their makers intend. So it might need to screw its courage to the sticking place and hope things don’t go south.

From the user perspective, there’s a whole other side here too though. Because given how much baggage inevitably comes with Facebook nowadays, the really burning question is whether any sensible person should be letting Mark Zuckerberg fire cupid’s arrows on their behalf?

He famously couldn’t tell malicious Kremlin propaganda from business as usual social networking like latte photos and baby pics — so what makes you think he’s going to be attuned to the subtle nuances of human chemistry?!

Here are just a few reasons why we think you should stay as far away from Facebook’s dalliance with dating as you possibly can…

  1. It’s yet another cynical data grab
    Facebook’s ad-targeting business model relies on continuous people tracking to function — which means it needs your data to exist. Simply put: Your privacy is Facebook’s lifeblood. Dating is therefore just a convenient veneer to slap atop another major data grab as Facebook tries to find less icky ways to worm its way back and/or deeper into people’s lives. Connecting singles to nurture ‘meaningful relationships’ is the marketing gloss being slicked over its latest invitation to ask people to forget how much private information they’re handing it. Worse still, dating means Facebook is asking people to share even more intimate and personal information than they might otherwise willingly divulge — again with a company whose business model relies upon tracking everything everyone does, on or offline, within its walled garden or outside it on the wider web, and whether they’re Facebook a user or not.
    This also comes at a time when users of Facebook’s eponymous social network have been showing signs of Facebook fatigue, and even changing how they use the service after a string of major privacy scandals. So Facebook doing dating also looks intended to function as a fresh distraction — to try to draw attention away from its detractors and prevent any more scales falling away from users’ eyes. The company wants to paper over growing scepticism about ad-targeting business models with algorithmic heart-shaped promises.
    Yet the real underlying passion here is still Facebook’s burning desire to keep minting money off of your private bits and bytes.
  2. Facebook’s history of privacy hostility shows it simply can’t be trusted
    Facebook also has a very long history of being outright hostile to privacy — including deliberately switching settings to make previously private settings public by default (regulatory intervention has been required to push back against that ratchet) — so its claim, with Dating, to be siloing data in a totally separate bucket, and also that information shared for this service won’t be used to further flesh out user profiles or to target people with ads elsewhere across its empire should be treated with extreme scepticism.
    Facebook also said WhatsApp users’ data would not be mingled and conjoined with Facebook user data — and, er, look what ended up happening there…!!

    And then there’s Facebook record of letting app developers liberally rip user data out of its platform — including (for years and years) ‘friend data’. Which almost sounded cosy. But Facebook’s friends data API meant that an individual Facebook user could have their data sucked out without even agreeing to a particular app’s ToS themselves. Which is part of the reason why users’ personal information has ended up all over the place — and in all sorts of unusual places. (Facebook not enforcing its own policies, and implementing features that could be systematically abused to suck out user data are among some of the many other reasons.)
    The long and short history of Facebook and privacy is that information given to it for one purpose has ended up being used for all sorts of other things — things we likely don’t even know the half of. Even Facebook itself doesn’t know which is why it’s engaged in a major historical app audit right now. Yet this very same company now wants you to tell it intimate details about your romantic and sexual preferences? Uhhhh, hold that thought, truly.

  3. Facebook already owns the majority of online attention — why pay the company any more mind? Especially as dating singles already have amazingly diverse app choice…
    In the West there’s pretty much no escape from Facebook Inc. Not if you want to be able to use the social sharing tools your friends are using. Network effects are hugely powerful for that reason, and Facebook owns not just one popular and dominant social network but a whole clutch of them — given it also bought Instagram and WhatsApp (plus some others it bought and just closed, shutting down those alternative options). But online dating, as it currently is, offers a welcome respite from Facebook.
    It’s arguably also no accident that the Facebook-less zone is so very richly served with startups and services catering to all sorts of types and tastes. There are dating apps for black singlesmatchmaking services for Muslims; several for Jewish people; plenty of Christian dating apps; at least one dating service to match ex-pat Asians; another for Chinese-Americansqueer dating apps for women; gay dating apps for men (and of course gay hook up apps too), to name just a few; there’s dating apps that offer games to generate matches; apps that rely on serendipity and location to rub strangers together via missed connections; apps that let you try live video chats with potential matches; and of course no shortage of algorithmic matching dating apps. No singles are lonely for dating apps to try, that’s for sure.
    So why on earth should humanity cede this very rich, fertile and creative ‘stranger interaction’ space, which caters to singles of all stripes and fancies, to a social network behemoth — just so Facebook can expand its existing monopoly on people’s attention?
    Why shrink the luxury of choice to give Facebook’s business extra uplift? If Facebook Dating became popular it would inexorably pull attention away from alternatives — perhaps driving consolidation among a myriad of smaller dating players, forcing some to band together to try to achieve greater scale and survive the arrival of the 800lb Facebook gorilla. Some services might feel they have to become a bit less specialized, pushed by market forces to go after a more generic (and thus larger) pool of singles. Others might find they just can’t get enough niche users anymore to self-sustain. The loss of the rich choice in dating apps singles currently enjoy would be a crying shame indeed. Which is as good a reason as any to snub Facebook’s overtures here.
  4. Algorithmic dating is both empty promise and cynical attempt to humanize Facebook surveillance
    Facebook typically counters the charge that because it tracks people to target them with ads its in the surveillance business by claiming people tracking benefits humanity because it can serve you “relevant ads”. Of course that’s a paper thin argument since all display advertising is something no one has chosen to see and therefore is necessarily a distraction from whatever a person was actually engaged with. It’s also an argument that’s come under increasing strain in recent times, given all the major scandals attached to Facebook’s ad platform, whether that’s to do with socially divisive Facebook ads, or malicious political propaganda spread via Facebook, or targeted Facebook ads that discriminate against protected groups, or Facebook ads that are actually just spreading scams. Safe to say, the list of problems attached to its ad targeting enterprise is long and keeps growing.
    But Facebook’s follow on claim now, with Dating and the data it intends to hold on people for this matchmaking purpose, is it has the algorithmic expertise to turn a creepy habit of tracking everything everyone does into a formula for locating love.
    So now it’s not just got “relevant” ads to sell you; it’s claiming Facebook surveillance is the special sauce to find your Significant Other!

    Frankly, this is beyond insidious. (It is also literally a Black Mirror episode — and that’s supposed to be dysfunctional sci-fi.) Facebook is moving into dating because it needs a new way to package and sell its unpleasant practice of people surveillance. It’s hoping to move beyond its attempt at normalizing its business line (i.e. that surveillance is necessary to show ads that people might be marginally more likely to click on) — which has become increasingly problematic as its ad platform has been shown to be causing all sorts of knock-on societal problems — by implying that by letting Facebook creep on you 24/7 it could secure your future happiness because its algorithms are working to track down your perfect other half — among all those 1s and 0s it’s continuously manhandling.
    Of course this is total bunkum. There’s no algorithmic formula to determine what makes one person click with another (or not). If there was humans would have figured it out long, long ago — and monetized it mercilessly. (And run into all sorts of horrible ethical problems along the way.)
    Thing is, people aren’t math. Humans cannot be made to neatly sum to the total of their collective parts and interests. Which is why life is a lot more interesting than the stuff you see on Facebook. And also why there’s a near infinite number of dating apps out there, catering to all sorts of people and predilections.
    Sadly Facebook can’t see that. Or rather it can’t admit it. And so we get nonsense notions of ‘expert’ algorithmic matchmaking and ‘data science’ as the underpinning justification for yet another dating app launch. Sorry but that’s all just marketing.
    The idea that Facebook’s data scientists are going to turn out to be bullseye hitting cupids is as preposterous as it is ridiculous. Like any matchmaking service there will be combinations thrown up that work and plenty more than do not. But if the price of a random result is ceaseless surveillance the service has a disproportionate cost attached to it — making it both an unfair and an unattractive exchange for the user. And once again people are being encouraged to give up far more than they’re getting in return.
    If you believe that finding ‘the one’ will be easier if you focus on people with similar interests to you or who are in the same friend group there’s no shortage of existing ‘life avenues’ you can pursue without having to resort to Facebook Dating. (Try joining a club. Or going to your friends’ parties. Or indeed taking your pick from the scores of existing dating apps that already offer interest-based matching.)
    Equally you could just take a hike up a mountain and meet your future wife at the top (as one couple I know did). Safe to say, there’s no formula to love. And thankfully so. Don’t believe anyone trying to sell you a dating service with the claim their nerdtastic data scientists will hook you up good and proper.
    Facebook’s chance of working any ‘love magic’ will be as good/poor as the next app-based matchmaking service. Which is to say it will be random. There’s certainly no formula to be distilled beyond connecting ‘available to date’ singles — which dating apps and websites have been doing very well for years and years and years. No Facebook dates necessary.
    The company has little more to offer the world of online dating than, say, OkCupid, which has scale and already combines the location and stated interests of its users in an attempt to throw up possible clicks. The only extra bit is Facebook’s quasi-bundling of Events into dating, as a potential avenue to try and date in a marginally more informal setting than agreeing to go on an actual date. Though, really, it just sounds like it might be more awkward to organize and pull off.
    Facebook’s generic approach to dating is also going to offer much less for certain singles who benefit from a more specialized and tailored service (such as a female-focused player like Bumble which has created a service to cater to women’s needs; or, indeed, any of the aforementioned community focused offerings cited above which help people meet other likeminded singles).
    Facebook appears to believe that size matters in dating. And seems to want to be a generic giant in a market that’s already richly catering to all sorts of different communities. For many singles that catch-all approach is going to earn it a very hard left swipe.
  5. Dating takes resource and focus away from problems Facebook should actually be fixing
    Facebook’s founder made ‘fixing Facebook’ his personal priority this year. Which underlines quite how many issues the company has smashing through its plate. We’re not talking little bug fixes. Facebook has a huge bunch of existentially awful hellholes burning through its platform and punching various human rights in the process. This is not at all trivial. Some really terrible stuff has been going on with its platforms acting as the conduit.
    Earlier this year, for instance, the UN blasted Facebook saying its platform had became a “beast” in Myanmar — weaponized and used to accelerate ethnic violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
    Facebook has admitted it did not have enough local resource to stop its software being used to amplify ethnic hate and violence in the market. Massacres of Rohingya refuges have been described by human rights organizations as a genocide.
    And it’s not an isolated instance. In the Philippines the country has recently been plunged into a major human rights crisis — and the government there, which used Facebook to help get elected, has also been using Facebook to savage its critics at the same time as carrying out thousands of urban killings in a bloody so-called ‘war on drugs’.
    In India, Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app has been identified as a contributing factor in multiple instances of mob violence and killings — as people have been whipped up by lies spread like lightning via the app.
    Set against such awful problems — where Facebook’s products are at very least not helping — we now see the company ploughing resource into expanding into a new business area, and expending engineering resource to build a whole new interface and messaging system (the latter to ensure Facebook Dating users can only swap texts, and can’t send photos or videos because that might be a dick pic risk).
    So it’s a genuine crying shame that Facebook did not pay so much close attention to goings on in Myanmar — where local organizations have long been calling for intelligent limits to be built in to its products to help stop abusive misuse.
    Yet Facebook only added the option to report conversations in its Messenger app this May
    So the sight of the company expending major effort to launch a dating product at the same time as it stands accused of failing to do enough to prevent its products from being conduits for human rights abuses in multiple markets is ethically uncomfortable, to say the least.
    Prospective users of Facebook Dating might therefore feel a bit queasy to think that their passing fancies have been prioritized by Zuckerberg & co over and above adding stronger safeguards and guardrails to the various platforms they operate to try to safeguard humans from actual death in other corners of the globe.
  6. By getting involved with dating, Facebook is mixing separate social streams
    Talking of feeling queasy, with Facebook Dating the company is attempting to pull off a tricky balancing act of convincing existing users (many of whom will already be married and/or in a long term relationship) that it’s somehow totally normal to just bolt on a dating layer to something that’s supposed to be a generic social network.
    All of a sudden a space that’s always been sold — and traded — as a platonic place for people to forge ‘friendships’ is suddenly having sexual opportunity injected into it. Sure, the company is trying to keep these differently oriented desires entirely separate, by making the Dating component an opt-in feature that lurks within Facebook (and where (it says) any activity is siloed and kept off of mainstream Facebook (at least that’s the claim)). But the very existence of Facebook Dating means anyone in a relationship who is already on Facebook is now, on one level, involved with a dating app company.
    Facebook users may also feel they’re being dangled the opportunity to sign up to online dating on the sly — with the company then committed itself to being the secret-keeping go-between ferrying any flirtatious messages they care to send in a way that would be difficult for their spouse to know about, whether they’re on Facebook or not.
    How comfortable is Facebook going to be with being a potential aid to adultery? I guess we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out. As noted above, Facebook execs have — in the past — suggested the company is in the business of ‘connecting people, period’. So there’s perhaps a certain twisted logic working away as an undercurrent and driving its impulse to push for ever more human connections. But the company could be at risk of applying its famous “it’s complicated” relationship status to itself with the dating launch — and then raining complicated consequences down upon its users as a result. (As, well, it so often seems to do in the name of expanding its own business.)
    So instead of ‘don’t mix the streams’, with dating we’re seeing Facebook trying to get away with running entirely opposite types of social interactions in close parallel. What could possibly go wrong?! Or rather what’s to stop someone in the ‘separate’ Facebook dating pool trying to Facebook-stalk a single they come across there who doesn’t responded to their overtures? (Given Facebook dating users are badged with their real Facebook names there could easily be user attempts to ‘cross over’.)
    And if sentiments from one siloed service spill over into mainstream Facebook things could get very messy indeed — and users could end up being doubly repelled by its service rather than additionally compelled. The risk is Facebook ends up fouling not feathering its own nest by trying to combine dating and social networking. (This less polite phrase also springs to mind.)
  7. Who are you hoping to date anyway?!
    Outside emerging markets Facebook’s growth has stalled. Even social networking’s later stage middle age boom looks tapped out. At the same time today’s teens are not at all hot for Facebook. The youngest web users are more interested in visually engaging social apps. And the company will have its work cut out trying to lure this trend-sensitive youth crowd. Facebook dating will probably sound like a bad joke — or a dad joke — to these kids.
    Going up the age range a bit, the under ~35s are hardly enamoured with Facebook either. They may still have a profile but also hardly think Facebook is cool. Some will have reduced their usage or even taken a mini break. The days of this age-group using Facebook to flirt with old college classmates are as long gone as sending a joke Facebook poke. Some are deleting their Facebook account entirely — and not looking back. Is this prime dating age-group suddenly likely to fall en masse for Facebook’s love match experiment? It seems doubtful.
    And it certainly looks like no accident Facebook is debuting Dating outside the US. Emerging markets, which often have young, app-loving populations, probably represent its best chance at bagging the critical mass of singles absolutely required to make any dating product even vaguely interesting.
    But in its marketing shots for the service Facebook seems to be hoping to attract singles in the late twenties age-range — dating app users who are probably among the ficklest, trickiest people for Facebook to lure with a late-stage, catch-all and, er, cringey proposition.
    After that, who’s left? Those over 35s who are still actively on Facebook are either going to be married — and thus busy sharing their wedding/baby pics — and not in the market for dating anyway; or if they are single they may be less inclined towards getting involved with online dating vs younger users who are now well accustomed to dating apps. So again, for Facebook, it looks like diminishing returns up here.
    And of course a dating app is only as interesting and attractive as the people on it. Which might be the most challenging hurdle for Facebook to make a mark on this well-served playing field — given its eponymous network is now neither young nor cool, hip nor happening, and seems to be having more of an identity crisis with each passing year.
    Perhaps Facebook could carve out a dating niche for itself among middle-age divorcees — by offering to digitally hand-hold them and help get them back into the dating game. (Although there’s zero suggestion that’s what it’s hoping to do with the service it debuted this week.)
    If Zuckerberg really wants to bag the younger singles he seems most interested in — at least judging by Facebook Dating’s marketing — he might have been better off adding a dating stream to Instagram.
    I mean, InstaLovegram almost sounds like it could be a thing.

Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

Instagram is embracing its true identity as a mail-order catalog. The question will be how much power merchants will give Instagram after seeing what its parent Facebook did to news outlets that relied on it. In a move that could pit it against Pinterest and Wish, Instagram is launching Shopping features across its app to let people discover and consider possible purchases before clicking through to check out on the merchant’s website.

Today, Instagram Explore is getting a personalized Shopping channel of items it thinks you’ll want most. And it’s expanding its Shopping tags for Instagram Stories to all viewers worldwide after a limited test in June, and it’s allowing brands in 46 countries to add the shopping bag icon to Stories that users can click through to buy what they saw.

Instagram clearly wants to graduate from where people get ideas for things to purchase to being a measurable gateway to their spending. 90 million people already tap its Shopping tags each month, it announced today. The new features could soak up more user attention and lead them to see more ads. But perhaps more importantly, demonstrating that Instagram can boost retail business’ sales for free through Stories and Explore could whet their appetite to buy Instagram ads to amplify their reach and juice the conversion channel. With 25 million businesses on Instagram but only 2 million advertisers, the app has room to massively increase its revenue.

For now Instagram is maintaining its “no comment” regarding whether it’s working on a standalone Instagram Shopping app as per a report from The Verge last month.  Instagram first launched its Shopping tags for feeds in 2016. It still points users out to merchant sites for the final payment step, though, in part because retailers want to control their relationships with customers. But long-term, allowing businesses to opt in to offering in-Instagram checkout could shorten the funnel and get more users actually buying.

Shopping joins the For You, Art, Beauty, Sports, Fashion and other topic channels that launched in Explore in June. The Explore algorithm will show you shopping-tagged posts from businesses you follow and ones you might like based on who you follow and what shopping content engages you. This marks the first time you can view a dedicated shopping space inside of Instagram, and it could become a bottomless well of browsing for those in need of some retail therapy.

With Shopping Stickers, brands can choose to add one per story and customize the color to match their photo or video. A tap opens the product details page, and another sends them to the merchant’s site. Businesses will be able to see the number of taps on their Shopping sticker, and how many people tapped through to their website. Partnerships with Shopify (500,000+ merchants) and BigCommerce (60,000+ merchants) will make it easy for retailers of all sizes to use Instagram’s Shopping Stickers. 

What about bringing Shopping to IGTV? A company spokesperson tells me, “IGTV and live video present interesting opportunities for brands to connect more closely with their customers, but we have no plans to bring shopping tools to those surfaces right now.”

For now, the new shopping features feel like a gift to merchants hoping to boost sales. But so did the surge of referral traffic Facebook sent to news publishers a few years ago. Those outlets soon grew dependent on Facebook, changed their news room staffing and content strategies to chase this traffic, and now find themselves in dire straights after Facebook cut off the traffic fire hose as it refocuses on friends and family content.

Retail merchants shouldn’t take the same bait. Instagram Shopping might be a nice bonus, but just how much it prioritizes the feature and spotlights the Explore channel are entirely under its control. Merchants should still work to develop an unmediated relationship directly with their customers, encouraging them to bookmark their sites or sign up for newsletters. Instagram’s favor could disappear with a change to its algorithm, and retailers must always be ready to stand on their own two feet.