Facebook faces fresh criticism over ad targeting of sensitive interests

Is Facebook trampling over laws that regulate the processing of sensitive categories of personal data by failing to ask people for their explicit consent before it makes sensitive inferences about their sex life, religion or political beliefs? Or is the company merely treading uncomfortably and unethically close to the line of the law?

An investigation by the Guardian and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation has found that Facebook’s platform allows advertisers to target users based on interests related to political beliefs, sexuality and religion — all categories that are marked out as sensitive information under current European data protection law.

And indeed under the incoming GDPR, which will apply across the bloc from May 25.

The joint investigation found Facebook’s platform had made sensitive inferences about users — allowing advertisers to target people based on inferred interests including communism, social democrats, Hinduism and Christianity. All of which would be classed as sensitive personal data under EU rules.

And while the platform offers some constraints on how advertisers can target people against sensitive interests — not allowing advertisers to exclude users based on a specific sensitive interest, for example (Facebook having previously run into trouble in the US for enabling discrimination via ethnic affinity-based targeting) — such controls are beside the point if you take the view that Facebook is legally required to ask for a user’s explicit consent to processing this kind of sensitive data up front, before making any inferences about a person.

Indeed, it’s very unlikely that any ad platform can put people into buckets with sensitive labels like ‘interested in social democrat issues’ or ‘likes communist pages’ or ‘attends gay events’ without asking them to let it do so first.

And Facebook is not asking first.

Facebook argues otherwise, of course — claiming that the information it gathers about people’s affinities/interests, even when they entail sensitive categories of information such as sexuality and religion, is not personal data.

In a response statement to the media investigation, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

Like other Internet companies, Facebook shows ads based on topics we think people might be interested in, but without using sensitive personal data. This means that someone could have an ad interest listed as ‘Gay Pride’ because they have liked a Pride associated Page or clicked a Pride ad, but it does not reflect any personal characteristics such as gender or sexuality. People are able to manage their Ad Preferences tool, which clearly explains how advertising works on Facebook and provides a way to tell us if you want to see ads based on specific interests or not. When interests are removed, we show people the list of removed interests so that they have a record they can access, but these interests are no longer used for ads. Our advertising complies with relevant EU law and, like other companies, we are preparing for the GDPR to ensure we are compliant when it comes into force.

Expect Facebook’s argument to be tested in the courts — likely in the very near future.

As we’ve said before, the GDPR lawsuits are coming for the company, thanks to beefed up enforcement of EU privacy rules, with the regulation providing for fines as large as 4% of a company’s global turnover.

Facebook is not the only online people profiler, of course, but it’s a prime target for strategic litigation both because of its massive size and reach (and the resulting power over web users flowing from a dominant position in an attention-dominating category), but also on account of its nose-thumbing attitude to compliance with EU regulations thus far.

The company has faced a number of challenges and sanctions under existing EU privacy law — though for its operations outside the US it typically refuses to recognize any legal jurisdiction except corporate-friendly Ireland, where its international HQ is based.

And, from what we’ve seen so far, Facebook’s response to GDPR ‘compliance’ is no new leaf. Rather it looks like privacy-hostile business as usual; a continued attempt to leverage its size and power to force a self-serving interpretation of the law — bending rules to fit its existing business processes, rather than reconfiguring those processes to comply with the law.

The GDPR is one of the reasons why Facebook’s ad microtargeting empire is facing greater scrutiny now, with just weeks to go before civil society organizations are able to take advantage of fresh opportunities for strategic litigation allowed by the regulation.

“I’m a big fan of the GDPR. I really believe that it gives us — as the court in Strasbourg would say — effective and practical remedies,” law professor Mireille Hildebrandt tells us. “If we go and do it, of course. So we need a lot of public litigation, a lot of court cases to make the GDPR work but… I think there are more people moving into this.

“The GDPR created a market for these sort of law firms — and I think that’s excellent.”

But it’s not the only reason. Another reason why Facebook’s handling of personal data is attracting attention is the result of tenacious press investigations into how one controversial political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, was able to gain such freewheeling access to Facebook users’ data — as a result of Facebook’s lax platform policies around data access — for, in that instance, political ad targeting purposes.

All of which eventually blew up into a major global privacy storm, this March, though criticism of Facebook’s privacy-hostile platform policies dates back more than a decade at this stage.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal at least brought Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg in front of US lawmakers, facing questions about the extent of the personal information it gathers; what controls it offers users over their data; and how he thinks Internet companies should be regulated, to name a few. (Pro tip for politicians: You don’t need to ask companies how they’d like to be regulated.)

The Facebook founder has also finally agreed to meet EU lawmakers — though UK lawmakers’ calls have been ignored.

Zuckerberg should expect to be questioned very closely in Brussels about how his platform is impacting European’s fundamental rights.

Sensitive personal data needs explicit consent

Facebook infers affinities linked to individual users by collecting and processing interest signals their web activity generates, such as likes on Facebook Pages or what people look at when they’re browsing outside Facebook — off-site intel it gathers via an extensive network of social plug-ins and tracking pixels embedded on third party websites. (According to information released by Facebook to the UK parliament this week, during just one week of April this year its Like button appeared on 8.4M websites; the Share button appeared on 931,000 websites; and its tracking Pixels were running on 2.2M websites.)

But here’s the thing: Both the current and the incoming EU legal framework for data protection sets the bar for consent to processing so-called special category data equally high — at “explicit” consent.

What that means in practice is Facebook needs to seek and secure separate consents from users (such as via a dedicated pop-up) for collecting and processing this type of sensitive data.

The alternative is for it to rely on another special condition for processing this type of sensitive data. However the other conditions are pretty tightly drawn — relating to things like the public interest; or the vital interests of a data subject; or for purposes of “preventive or occupational medicine”.

None of which would appear to apply if, as Facebook is, you’re processing people’s sensitive personal information just to target them with ads.

Ahead of GDPR, Facebook has started asking users who have chosen to display political opinions and/or sexuality information on their profiles to explicitly consent to that data being public.

Though even there its actions are problematic, as it offers users a take it or leave it style ‘choice’ — saying they either remove the info entirely or leave it and therefore agree that Facebook can use it to target them with ads.

Yet EU law also requires that consent be freely given. It cannot be conditional on the provision of a service.

So Facebook’s bundling of service provisions and consent will also likely face legal challenges, as we’ve written before.

“They’ve tangled the use of their network for socialising with the profiling of users for advertising. Those are separate purposes. You can’t tangle them like they are doing in the GDPR,” says Michael Veale, a technology policy researcher at University College London, emphasizing that GDPR allows for a third option that Facebook isn’t offering users: Allowing them to keep sensitive data on their profile but that data not be used for targeted advertising.

“Facebook, I believe, is quite afraid of this third option,” he continues. “It goes back to the Congressional hearing: Zuckerberg said a lot that you can choose which of your friends every post can be shared with, through a little in-line button. But there’s no option there that says ‘do not share this with Facebook for the purposes of analysis’.”

Returning to how the company synthesizes sensitive personal affinities from Facebook users’ Likes and wider web browsing activity, Veale argues that EU law also does not recognize the kind of distinction Facebook is seeking to draw — i.e. between inferred affinities and personal data — and thus to try to redraw the law in its favor.

“Facebook say that the data is not correct, or self-declared, and therefore these provisions do not apply. Data does not have to be correct or accurate to be personal data under European law, and trigger the protections. Indeed, that’s why there is a ‘right to rectification’ — because incorrect data is not the exception but the norm,” he tells us.

“At the crux of Facebook’s challenge is that they are inferring what is arguably “special category” data (Article 9, GDPR) from non-special category data. In European law, this data includes race, sexuality, data about health, biometric data for the purposes of identification, and political opinions. One of the first things to note is that European law does not govern collection and use as distinct activities: Both are considered processing.

“The pan-European group of data protection regulators have recently confirmed in guidance that when you infer special category data, it is as if you collected it. For this to be lawful, you need a special reason, which for most companies is restricted to separate, explicit consent. This will be often different than the lawful basis for processing the personal data you used for inference, which might well be ‘legitimate interests’, which didn’t require consent. That’s ruled out if you’re processing one of these special categories.”

“The regulators even specifically give Facebook like inference as an example of inferring special category data, so there is little wiggle room here,” he adds, pointing to an example used by regulators of a study that combined Facebook Like data with “limited survey information” — and from which it was found that researchers could accurately predict a male user’s sexual orientation 88% of the time; a user’s ethnic origin 95% of the time; and whether a user was Christian or Muslim 82% of the time.

Which underlines why these rules exist — given the clear risk of breaches to human rights if big data platforms can just suck up sensitive personal data automatically, as a background process.

The overarching aim of GDPR is to give consumers greater control over their personal data not just to help people defend their rights but to foster greater trust in online services — and for that trust to be a mechanism for greasing the wheels of digital business. Which is pretty much the opposite approach to sucking up everything in the background and hoping your users don’t realize what you’re doing.

Veale also points out that under current EU law even an opinion on someone is their personal data… (per this Article 29 Working Party guidance, emphasis ours):

From the point of view of the nature of the information, the concept of personal data includes any sort of statements about a person. It covers “objective” information, such as the presence of a certain substance in one’s blood. It also includes “subjective” information, opinions or assessments. This latter sort of statements make up a considerable share of personal data processing in sectors such as banking, for the assessment of the reliability of borrowers (“Titius is a reliable borrower”), in insurance (“Titius is not expected to die soon”) or in employment (“Titius is a good worker and merits promotion”).

We put that specific point to Facebook — but at the time of writing we’re still waiting for a response. (Nor would Facebook provide a public response to several other questions we asked around what it’s doing here, preferring to limit its comment to the statement at the top of this post.)

Veale adds that the WP29 guidance has been upheld in recent CJEU cases such as Nowak — which he says emphasized that, for example, annotations on the side of an exam script are personal data.

He’s clear about what Facebook should be doing to comply with the law: “They should be asking for individuals’ explicit, separate consent for them to infer data including race, sexuality, health or political opinions. If people say no, they should be able to continue using Facebook as normal without these inferences being made on the back-end.”

“They need to tell individuals about what they are doing clearly and in plain language,” he adds. “Political opinions are just as protected here, and this is perhaps more interesting than race or sexuality.”

“They certainly should face legal challenges under the GDPR,” agrees Paul Bernal, senior lecturer in law at the University of East Anglia, who is also critical of how Facebook is processing sensitive personal information. “The affinity concept seems to be a pretty transparent attempt to avoid legal challenges, and one that ought to fail. The question is whether the regulators have the guts to make the point: It undermines a quite significant part of Facebook’s approach.”

“I think the reason they’re pushing this is that they think they’ll get away with it, partly because they think they’ve persuaded people that the problem is Cambridge Analytica, as rogues, rather than Facebook, as enablers and supporters. We need to be very clear about this: Cambridge Analytica are the symptom, Facebook is the disease,” he adds.

“I should also say, I think the distinction between ‘targeting’ being OK and ‘excluding’ not being OK is also mostly Facebook playing games, and trying to have their cake and eat it. It just invites gaming of the systems really.”

Facebook claims its core product is social media, rather than data-mining people to run a highly lucrative microtargeted advertising platform.

But if that’s true why then is it tangling its core social functions with its ad-targeting apparatus — and telling people they can’t have a social service unless they agree to interest-based advertising?

It could support a service with other types of advertising, which don’t depend on background surveillance that erodes users’ fundamental rights.  But it’s choosing not to offer that. All you can ‘choose’ is all or nothing. Not much of a choice.

Facebook telling people that if they want to opt out of its ad targeting they must delete their account is neither a route to obtain meaningful (and therefore lawful) consent — nor a very compelling approach to counter criticism that its real business is farming people.

The issues at stake here for Facebook, and for the shadowy background data-mining and brokering of the online ad targeting industry as a whole, are clearly far greater than any one data misuse scandal or any one category of sensitive data. But Facebook’s decision to retain people’s sensitive personal data for ad targeting without asking for consent up-front is a telling sign of something gone very wrong indeed.

If Facebook doesn’t feel confident asking its users whether what it’s doing with their personal data is okay or not, maybe it shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

At very least it’s a failure of ethics. Even if the final judgement on Facebook’s self-serving interpretation of EU privacy rules will have to wait for the courts to decide.

Whitney Wolfe Herd doesn’t care what she’s supposed to do

It’s 4:55pm Central Time on a Tuesday at Bumble headquarters in Austin, Texas. Whitney Wolfe Herd, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of the woman-led dating app is showing me around the nearly four-year-old startup’s office before we sit down to talk.

Our first stop is the standard startup watering hole, with a few twists. The fridges are stocked with Topo Chico instead of La Croix and the built-in taps are purely for decoration. Maybe one day they’ll be filled with Kombucha or iced coffee, a team member tells me. But no mention of beer. We’re not in Silicon Valley anymore.

As Wolfe Herd pours two glasses of white wine and plops in a few ice cubes, she briefly pauses to ask if I’m okay with the drink selection. Her question quickly caused my mind to wander back to my 21st birthday when a waiter told me men aren’t supposed to drink white wine with ice cubes.

There was perhaps no better way to begin my time with Wolfe Herd than a reminder that no matter how many hundreds of millions of woman-initiated matches have been made on Bumble, the company still exists in a world so ingrained with gender stereotypes that we couldn’t get through pouring a drink before the first one reared its head.

Luckily for me and my unsophisticated palate, I’d soon learn that Whitney Wolfe Herd doesn’t particularly care what people think that she or Bumble are supposed to do, let alone what we should be drinking.

‘I’m not building a dating app’

Bumble isn’t Wolfe Herd’s first exposure to the world of digital dating and connections. She moved to Los Angeles in 2012 and became an early co-founder of Tinder, but eventually left the company amid allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against another one of the company’s co-founders. The lawsuit was settled, and while the past is the past, the history does help set the stage for the idea that would eventually turn into Bumble.

“I was just poof, gone, ceased to exist. It was like leaving behind an abandoned life, fleeing from the storm or whatever it was,” explained Wolfe Herd when talking about leaving Los Angeles after her time at Tinder. “I was experiencing all this, and then the Twitterverse and the Instagram world and the online sphere started attacking me. And I had never really understood online bullying. I didn’t even know what that meant or what it felt like. It made me really depressed.”

As successful entrepreneurs are known to do, Wolfe Herd soon began figuring out a way to leverage these closely held personal experiences into a new product. Her solution was Merci, a female-only social network “rooted in compliments and kindness and good behavior.”

Original mockup of Bumble, then known as Merci

While she was building out the idea, Andrey Andreev, founder and CEO of Badoo, the largest dating platform in the world, contacted her. Little did Wolfe Herd know, but Andreev saw her departure from Tinder as an opportunity, inviting her to meet the Badoo team in London where it had been based for more than 10 years. After some reluctance on Wolfe Herd’s part, she decided to go for it. After all, she was looking for feedback on her Merci idea, and worst-case she’d at least leave with a better idea of what she wanted to build next.

But Andreev had other plans. During their first meeting he frankly asked Wolfe Herd to become the chief marketing officer of Badoo.

She didn’t even consider the offer. First, it would have required her to move to London and, more importantly she was adamant about never working in the dating world again. With the CMO offer in the meeting’s rearview mirror, Wolfe Herd shifted the conversation to Merci, and gave Andreev a deep dive into her idea for a woman-only social network grounded in compliments and positive feedback.

“I love it,” Andreev said. “We’re going to name the dating app Merci.”

She was aghast, even in her retelling of the story.

“The what? What are you talking about? Did you hear what I said? I’m not building a dating app. Merci is the name of my female-only social network.”  

Andreev clarified: “I love your vision for a female-first platform, but you need to do this in dating.”

He essentially offered her the funding she needed to get the app off the ground, and, perhaps more importantly, full access to Badoo’s technical team to build and ship it. Plus, full creative control and decision-making ability regarding the direction of the new company.

From L-R: Whitney Wolfe Herd, Andrey Andreev and Sarah Jones Simmer, Bumble’s COO

But Wolfe Herd had no interest in building such an app, and Andreev had no interest in getting involved with a new social network. So she headed home, all the more determined to make Merci the next big thing. But the offer from Andreev was still lingering in the back of her mind.

“My husband, boyfriend, whatever you want to call him — Michael, we’ll just call him Michael,” Wolfe Herd told me. “Michael was like, ‘Whit, this opportunity doesn’t strike twice. You’re going to try and raise money right now? You’re literally a scorned seductress, according to the VC community right now. Good luck to you. I know you don’t have the backbone right now,’ because I had been so depleted and I was so low on myself.”

With the encouragement of her then-boyfriend (now husband) Michael Herd, she decided that Andreev’s offer was too good to pass up, and headed back to London, where she essentially made a handshake deal with him to build this new woman-first dating app.

Bumble was born

The company would exist as a new entity with 20 percent ownership belonging to Wolfe Herd, 79 percent to Badoo and 1 percent divided between Christopher Gulczynski and Sarah Mick, two early consultants who went on to join full-time after the company was up and running. Briefly named Moxie, the group settled on Bumble after a trademark search turned up conflicts.

Bumble would be run independently from Austin, Texas, with the ability to tap into Andreev and Badoo’s years of experience in the dating industry when needed. It certainly wasn’t a typical arrangement, especially in the world of tech startups where, in order to build a successful company, you’re supposed to rally a group of two to three co-founders, raise a seed round, then a Series A and so on.

But now, four years and 30 million users later, Bumble’s cap table looks exactly the same as it did the day the company was founded. Wolfe Herd’s 20 percent undiluted founder’s stake is evidence that an atypical path was right for Bumble.

A startup office with no engineers

It quickly becomes apparent to me as a technology writer walking through Bumble’s Austin headquarters that this isn’t your typical startup office. It looks and feels much more like a living room than any sort of standard tech office environment.

For a small space that is now overflowing with more than 50 employees, there are only about 25 desks, and most of those remained empty during my two-day visit. Everyone seems to prefer rotating through conference rooms, counters, coffee tables, floors and the largest couch I’ve ever seen, which sits in a semicircle ready to comfortably fit upwards of 30 people, if needed.

“I believe in taking people away from their desks and making them feel collaborative and inspire one another instead of being siloed,” she explained.

While the setup may not work for some companies, it certainly does for Bumble. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Wolfe Herd explained that they had to rotate through multiple designers before settling on one that aligned with her vision.

“So many people wanted to make it hyper functional and minimalistic and stark…almost cold,” she told me. “I didn’t want it to feel that way. I wanted it to feel welcoming and warm and do it differently.”

The design isn’t the only thing that stands out when walking through Bumble’s office. It also doesn’t have a single engineer.

Just like Andreev promised Wolfe Herd when they first decided to build Bumble, all engineering is still handled in Badoo’s London offices. While some technology veterans may bash Bumble for offloading their engineering to their parent company, she is unapologetic about the benefits and practicality of the arrangement.

“Had I gone out and tried to do this on my own with no tech support, Bumble would be a year-and-a-half behind. Think of all the marriages and babies and connections we’ve made [in that time],” explained Wolfe Herd.    

She continued: “It’s like building a road. If you can get the materials from someone quicker that will make people’s lives easier, why would you say, ‘No, I want to build this with my own two hands,’ just to be able to say I did?”

I asked Wolfe Herd if there are ever times when their team has wished that their developers were sitting in the next room, standing by for a product consultation or roadmapping session.

But Wolfe Herd actually attributes much of Bumble’s success to working in an environment devoid of a dev team. Specifically, she explained that it gave her team the creative freedom to allow Bumble’s message and brand to drive the product, and not vice versa. By letting branding take the front seat instead of product, Bumble leapfrogged the “connections app” phase and became a lifestyle brand.

“How do you have different touch points in a user’s life? How do you reach them on their drive home from work? How do you talk to them on social media? How do you make them feel special? How do you add your brand into their different touch points?” Wolfe Herd says. Her original vision was to build a social network rooted in positivity and affirmations, but asking (and answering) these questions has allowed her to help in building a whole world for Bumble users rooted in positivity and affirmations.

Versace, Balenciaga, Bumble

Last summer if you happened to be walking through New York’s trendy Soho neighborhood you may have noticed a new tenant sandwiched between Versace and Balenciaga on Mercer Street.

In a first for a dating app and pretty much any social app, Bumble opened a physical space as an attempt to formalize the community that was naturally forming around it. At the time she told me that the opening coincided with Bumble’s brand becoming something that people are now proud to associate with in real life.

Bumble’s New York City Hive

This message was repeatedly echoed to me by others around Wolfe Herd, and it seems to be one of the internal barometers the company uses to track its success. Samantha Fulgham, Bumble’s second employee who now leads campus marketing and outreach, explained how male college students are now applying to become ambassadors, interns and even full-time employees.

“We tried to [have male students be campus ambassadors] in the U.S. probably two years ago. They didn’t really want to do it, because they thought it was a girl thing. Now we’re trying it again in Canada and we’ve already had so many guys asking how they can work for Bumble… saying, ‘I want to be a part of this company.’”

And it’s not just college students champing at the bit to associate themselves with the brand. When Bumble launched its business networking product last fall, the startup’s NY launch party was attended by Priyanka Chopra, Kate Hudson and Karlie Kloss, while the L.A. event hosted Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Garner and Kim Kardashian West.

Bumble Bizz’s NYC Launch Party. From L-R: Whitney Wolfe Herd, Priyanka Chopra, Karlie Kloss, Fergie and Kate Hudson. By Neil Rasmus/BFA.com.

A digital response to a real problem

Bumble has been able to grow into the company it is today because it was founded on the basic principle of taking a stance on a contested issue: Women were never supposed to make the first move. But Bumble didn’t stop there, and under Wolfe Herd the startup has been very vocal about making sure they are using their voice to address issues that other companies are taught to avoid taking a stance on.  

In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting, Bumble did something that breaks just about every rule taught in marketing and PR 101: The dating app very publicly decided to insert itself right in the middle of our nation’s ongoing gun debate by banning images of guns on its platform.

“We just want to create a community where people feel at ease, where they do not feel threatened, and we just don’t see guns fitting into that equation,” Wolfe Herd told The New York Times after the ban.

She told me at the time that the move shouldn’t be seen as Bumble taking a hard stance against guns or gun owners, but rather taking a hard stance against normalizing violence on their platform.

While an outsider may have been surprised to see such a fast-growing company break the status quo and decide to take a stance on a political issue, those who know Wolfe Herd will say that doing things like this is exactly why Bumble has become so successful in such a short amount of time.

What’s next?

For an industry that’s been around since the beginning of time, matchmaking sure is having its moment. And even the big players want a piece of the action; Facebook has announced it’s expanding into the dating space. So how does Bumble, a barely four-year-old, non-venture-backed company take advantage of all this attention while simultaneously defending itself from the threat of big players entering the space?

Over the summer we reported that Tinder’s parent company Match was set on acquiring Bumble, first at a $450 million valuation, then a few months later at “well over” $1 billion. It would have been an ironic ending for a company that was at least partially founded because of Wolfe Herd’s negative experiences surrounding her time at Tinder and Match.

Ultimately negotiations fell through between the two companies, and from there things escalated quickly. In March, Match sued Bumble for “patent infringement and misuse of intellectual property,” and a few weeks later Bumble sued Match for fraudulently obtaining trade secrets during the acquisition process. Both lawsuits are still making their way through the courts, but it’s safe to say that a deal between the two is off the table for the foreseeable future.

So what’s next for Bumble? The company is profitable and self-sustaining, and has no need to take on capital or sell itself. But Wolfe Herd acknowledged that the right acquirer may allow them to fulfill their goal of “recalibrating gender norms and empowering people to connect globally” at a much faster pace.

Wolfe Herd explained: “If the right opportunity presents itself, we’ll absolutely explore that and we’ll absolutely always explore the best way to take what we’re trying to do and what our mission is and what our values are. If we can be acquired, that will help us scale 10 times faster and that’s something that’s interesting to us, right?”

But she was also clear that cash isn’t what they’re looking for. “We would only ever consider an acquisition of sorts that brings strategic intellectual capital to the table, strategic knowledge of new markets that we have not yet gone into, and added value in ways that supersedes just straight cash,” said Wolfe Herd.

To the casual observer it sounds a lot like Facebook and its 2+ billion active users could do a pretty good job helping Bumble quickly spread its message around the world.

And Bumble seems to agree. After Facebook’s announcement about its dating play, Bumble issued a statement saying, “We were thrilled when we saw today’s news. Our executive team has already reached out to Facebook to explore ways to collaborate. Perhaps Bumble and Facebook can join forces to make the connecting space even more safe and empowering.”

In a conversation with me following the announcement, Wolfe Herd said that Facebook’s expansion into dating “is actually super exciting for the industry, because if you look at the history of Facebook when it comes to building their own products versus acquiring, they oftentimes attempt to build their own. If those products don’t successfully come to market, there’s usually a transition into acquisition. Who knows what will happen?”

So if Facebook comes knocking, don’t be surprised if Bumble answers… and quickly. But if they don’t, then current indicators are that Bumble will be just fine.

In just four years the company has flipped the switch on app-based dating, taking something that was once taboo and making it something that users are proud to associate with. So luckily for the more than 30 million women (and men) who have used Bumble to break gender stereotypes and make over 2 billion matches on their own terms, Whitney Wolfe Herd didn’t care what she or her company were supposed to do.

There’s an access code for Visible in its online ad

Sometimes it pays to click on the ads.

Verizon’s poorly kept startup secret, Visible, the new app-based phone service that provides all-in voice, data and text for $40 does have an access code for the hoi polloi.

It’s in the online ads for the company’s service and it’s: 0abfa

You’re welcome.

 

Google is banning Irish abortion referendum ads ahead of vote

Google is suspending adverts related to a referendum in Ireland on whether or not to overturn a constitutional clause banning abortion. The vote is due to take place in a little over two weeks time.

“Following our update around election integrity efforts globally, we have decided to pause all ads related to the Irish referendum on the eighth amendment,” a Google spokesperson told us.

The spokesperson said enforcement of the policy — which will cover referendum adverts that appear alongside Google search results and on its video sharing platform YouTube — will begin in the next 24 hours, with the pause remaining in effect through the referendum, with the vote due to take place on May 25.

The move follows an announcement by Facebook yesterday saying it had stopped accepting referendum related ads paid for by foreign entities. However Google is going further and pausing all ads targeting the vote.

Given the sensitivity of the issue a blanket ban is likely the least controversial option for the company, as well as also the simplest to implement — whereas Facebook has said it has been liaising with local groups for some time, and has created a dedicated channel where ads that might be breaking its ban on foreign buyers can be reported by the groups, generating reports that Facebook will need to review and act on quickly.

Given how close the vote now is both tech giants have been accused of acting too late to prevent foreign interests from using their platforms to exploit a loophole in Irish law to get around a ban on foreign donations to political campaigns by pouring money into unregulated digital advertising instead.

Speaking to the Guardian, a technology spokesperson for Ireland’s opposition party Fianna Fáil, described Google’s decision to ban the adverts as “too late in the day”.

“Fake news has already had a corrosive impact on the referendum debate on social media,” James Lawless TD told it, adding that the referendum campaign had made it clear Ireland needs legislation to restrict the activities of Internet companies’ ad products “in the same way that steps were taken in the past to regulate political advertising on traditional forms of print and broadcast media”.

We’ve asked Google why it’s only taken the decision to suspend referendum ad buys now, and why it did not act months earlier — given the Irish government announced its intention to hold a 2018 referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment in mid 2017 — and will update this post with any response.

In a public policy blog post earlier this month, the company’s policy SVP Kent Walker talked up the steps the company is taking to (as he put it) “support… election integrity through greater advertising transparency”, saying it’s rolling out new policies for U.S. election ads across its platforms, including requiring additional verification for election ad buyers, such as confirmation that an advertiser is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

However this U.S.-first focus leaves other regions vulnerable to election fiddlers — hence Google deciding to suspend ad buys around the Irish vote, albeit tardily.

The company has also previously said it will implement a system of disclosures for ad buyers to make it clear to users who paid for the ad, and that it will be publishing a Transparency Report this summer breaking out election ad purchases. It also says it’s building a searchable library for election ads.

Although it’s not clear when any of these features will be rolled out across all regions where Google ads are served.

Facebook has also announced a raft of similar transparency steps related to political ads in recent years — responding to political pressure and scrutiny following revelations about the extent of Kremlin-backed online disinformation campaigns that had targeted the 2016 US presidential election.

How did Thumbtack win the on-demand services market?

Back in 2008, as the global financial crisis was only just beginning to tear at the fabric of the U.S. economy, entrepreneurs in San Francisco were already hard at work on potential patches.

This was the beginning of what’s now known as the gig economy. Companies like TaskRabbit and Thumbtack — and Handy, Zaarly, and several others — all began by trying to build better marketplaces for buyers and sellers of services. Their timing, it turns out, was prescient.

In snowy Boston during the winter of 2008, Kevin Busque and his wife Leah were building RunMyErrand, the marketplace service that would become TaskRabbit, as a way to avoid schlepping through snow to pick up dog food .

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Marco Zappacosta, a young entrepreneur whose parents were the founders of Logitech, and a crew of co-founders including were building Thumbtack, a professional services marketplace from a home office they shared.

As these entrepreneurs built their businesses in northern California (amid the early years of a technology renaissance fostered by patrons made rich from returns on investments in companies like Google and Salesforce.com), the rest of America was stumbling.

In the two years between 2008 and 2010 the unemployment rate in America doubled, rising from 5% to 10%. Professional services workers were hit especially hard as banks, insurance companies, realtors, contractors, developers and retailers all retrenched — laying off staff as the economy collapsed under the weight of terrible loans and a speculative real estate market.

Things weren’t easy for Thumbtack’s founders at the outset in the days before its $1.3 billion valuation and last hundred plus million dollar round of funding. “One of the things that really struck us about the team, was just how lean they were. At the time they were operating out of a house, they were still cooking meals together,” said Cyan Banister, one of the company’s earliest investors and a partner at the multi-billion dollar venture firm, Founders Fund.

“The only thing they really ever spent money on, was food… It was one of these things where they weren’t extravagant, they were extremely purposeful about every dollar that they spent,” Banister said. “They basically slept at work, and were your typical startup story of being under the couch. Every time I met with them, the story was, in the very early stages was about the same for the first couple years, which was, we’re scraping Craigslist, we’re starting to get some traction.”

The idea of powering a Craigslist replacement with more of a marketplace model was something that appealed to Thumbtack’s earliest investor and champion, the serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calcanis.

Thumbtack chief executive Marco Zappacosta

“I remember like it was yesterday when Marco showed me Thumbtack and I looked at this and I said, ‘So, why are you building this?’ And he said, ‘Well, if you go on Craigslist, you know, it’s like a crap shoot. You post, you don’t know. You read a post… you know… you don’t know how good the person is. There’re no reviews.’” Calcanis said. “He had made a directory. It wasn’t the current workflow you see in the app — that came in year three I think. But for the first three years, he built a directory. And he showed me the directory pages where he had a photo of the person, the services provided, the bio.”

The first three years were spent developing a list of vendors that the company had verified with a mailing address, a license, and a certificate of insurance for people who needed some kind of service. Those three features were all Calcanis needed to validate the deal and pull the trigger on an initial investment.

“That’s when I figured out my personal thesis of angel investing,” Calcanis said.

“Some people are market based; some people want to invest in certain demographics or psychographics; immigrant kids or Stanford kids, whatever. Mine is just, ‘Can you make a really interesting product and are your decisions about that product considered?’ And when we discuss those decisions, do I feel like you’re the person who should build this product for the world And it’s just like there’s a big sign above Marco’s head that just says ‘Winner! Winner! Winner!’”

Indeed, it looks like Zappacosta and his company are now running what may be their victory lap in their tenth year as a private company. Thumbtack will be profitable by 2019 and has rolled out a host of new products in the last six months.

Their thesis, which flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, was to build a product which offered listings of any service a potential customer could want in any geography across the U.S. Other companies like Handy and TaskRabbit focused on the home, but on Thumbtack (like any good community message board) users could see postings for anything from repairman to reiki lessons and magicians to musicians alongside the home repair services that now make up the bulk of its listings.

“It’s funny, we had business plans and documents that we wrote and if you look back, the vision that we outlined then, is very similar to the vision we have today. We honestly looked around and we said, ‘We want to solve a problem that impacts a huge number of people. The local services base is super inefficient. It’s really difficult for customers to find trustworthy, reliable people who are available for the right price,’” said Sander Daniels, a co-founder at the company. 

“For pros, their number one concern is, ‘Where do I put money in my pocket next? How do I put food on the table for my family next?’ We said, ‘There is a real human problem here. If we can connect these people to technology and then, look around, there are these global marketplace for products: Amazon, Ebay, Alibaba, why can’t there be a global marketplace for services?’ It sounded crazy to say it at the time and it still sounds crazy to say, but that is what the dream was.”

Daniels acknowledges that the company changed the direction of its product, the ways it makes money, and pivoted to address issues as they arose, but the vision remained constant. 

Meanwhile, other startups in the market have shifted their focus. Indeed as Handy has shifted to more of a professional services model rather than working directly with consumers and TaskRabbit has been acquired by Ikea, Thumbtack has doubled down on its independence and upgrading its marketplace with automation tools to make matching service providers with customers that much easier.

Late last year the company launched an automated tool serving up job requests to its customers — the service providers that pay the company a fee for leads generated by people searching for services on the company’s app or website.

Thumbtack processes about $1 billion a year in business for its service providers in roughly 1,000 professional categories.

Now, the matching feature is getting an upgrade on the consumer side. Earlier this month the company unveiled Instant Results — a new look for its website and mobile app — that uses all of the data from its 200,000 services professionals to match with the 30 professionals that best correspond to a request for services. It’s among the highest number of professionals listed on any site, according to Zappacosta. The next largest competitor, Yelp, has around 115,000 listings a year. Thumbtack’s professionals are active in a 90 day period.

Filtering by price, location, tools and schedule, anyone in the U.S. can find a service professional for their needs. It’s the culmination of work processing nine years and 25 million requests for services from all of its different categories of jobs.

It’s a long way from the first version of Thumbtack, which had a “buy” tab and a “sell” tab; with the “buy” side to hire local services and the “sell” to offer them.

“From the very early days… the design was to iterate beyond the traditional model of business listing directors. In that, for the consumer to tell us what they were looking for and we would, then, find the right people to connect them to,” said Daniels. “That functionality, the request for quote functionality, was built in from v.1 of the product. If you tried to use it then, it wouldn’t work. There were no businesses on the platform to connect you with. I’m sure there were a million bugs, the UI and UX were a disaster, of course. That was the original version, what I remember of it at least.”

It may have been a disaster, but it was compelling enough to get the company its $1.2 million angel round — enough to barely develop the product. That million dollar investment had to last the company through the nuclear winter of America’s recession years, when venture capital — along with every other investment class — pulled back.

“We were pounding the pavement trying to find somebody to give us money for a Series A round,” Daniels said. “That was a very hard period of the company’s life when we almost went out of business, because nobody would give us money.”

That was a pre-revenue period for the company, which experimented with four revenue streams before settling on the one that worked the best. In the beginning the service was free, and it slowly transitioned to a commission model. Then, eventually, the company moved to a subscription model where service providers would pay the company a certain amount for leads generated off of Thumbtack.

“We weren’t able to close the loop,” Daniels said. “To make commissions work, you have to know who does the job, when, for how much. There are a few possible ways to collect all that information, but the best one, I think, is probably by hosting payments through your platform. We actually built payments into the platform in 2011 or 2012. We had significant transaction volume going through it, but we then decided to rip it out 18 months later, 24 months later, because, I think we had kind of abandoned the hope of making commissions work at that time.”

While Thumbtack was struggling to make its bones, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest were raking in cash. The founders thought that they could also access markets in the same way, but investors weren’t interested in a consumer facing business that required transactions — not advertising — to work. User generated content and social media were the rage, but aside from Uber and Lyft the jury was still out on the marketplace model.

“For our company that was not a Facebook or a Twitter or Pinterest, at that time, at least, that we needed revenue to show that we’re going to be able to monetize this,” Daniels said. “We had figured out a way to sign up pros at enormous scale and consumers were coming online, too. That was showing real promise. We said, ‘Man, we’re a hot ticket, we’re going to be able to raise real money.’ Then, for many reasons, our inexperience, our lack of revenue model, probably a bunch of stuff, people were reluctant to give us money.”

The company didn’t focus on revenue models until the fall of 2011, according to Daniels. Then after receiving rejection after rejection the company’s founders began to worry. “We’re like, ‘Oh, shit.’ November of 2009 we start running these tests, to start making money, because we might not be able to raise money here. We need to figure out how to raise cash to pay the bills, soon,” Daniels recalled. 

The experience of almost running into the wall put the fear of god into the company. They managed to scrape out an investment from Javelin, but the founders were convinced that they needed to find the right revenue number to make the business work with or without a capital infusion. After a bunch of deliberations, they finally settled on $350,000 as the magic number to remain a going concern.

“That was the metric that we were shooting towards,” said Daniels. “It was during that period that we iterated aggressively through these revenue models, and, ultimately, landed on a paper quote. At the end of that period then Sequoia invested, and suddenly, pros supply and consumer demand and revenue model all came together and like, ‘Oh shit.’”

Finding the right business model was one thing that saved the company from withering on the vine, but another choice was the one that seemed the least logical — the idea that the company should focus on more than just home repairs and services.

The company’s home category had lots of competition with companies who had mastered the art of listing for services on Google and getting results. According to Daniels, the company couldn’t compete at all in the home categories initially.

“It turned out, randomly … we had no idea about this … there was not a similarly well developed or mature events industry,” Daniels said. “We outperformed in events. It was this strategic decision, too, that, on all these 1,000 categories, but it was random, that over the last five years we are the, if not the, certainly one of the leading events service providers in the country. It just happened to be that we … I don’t want to say stumbled into it … but we found these pockets that were less competitive and we could compete in and build a business on.”

The focus on geographical and services breadth — rather than looking at building a business in a single category or in a single geography meant that Zappacosta and company took longer to get their legs under them, but that they had a much wider stance and a much bigger base to tap as they began to grow.

“Because of naivete and this dreamy ambition that we’re going to do it all. It was really nothing more strategic or complicated than that,” said Daniels. “When we chose to go broad, we were wandering the wilderness. We had never done anything like this before.”

From the company’s perspective, there were two things that the outside world (and potential investors) didn’t grasp about its approach. The first was that a perfect product may have been more competitive in a single category, but a good enough product was better than the terrible user experiences that were then on the market. “You can build a big company on this good enough product, which you can then refine over the course of time to be greater and greater,” said Daniels.

The second misunderstanding is that the breadth of the company let it scale the product that being in one category would have never allowed Thumbtack to do. Cross selling and upselling from carpet cleaners to moving services to house cleaners to bounce house rentals for parties — allowed for more repeat use.

More repeat use meant more jobs for services employees at a time when unemployment was still running historically high. Even in 2011, unemployment remained stubbornly high. It wasn’t until 2013 that the jobless numbers began their steady decline.

There’s a question about whether these gig economy jobs can keep up with the changing times. Now, as unemployment has returned to its pre-recession levels, will people want to continue working in roles that don’t offer health insurance or retirement benefits? The answer seems to be “yes” as the Thumbtack platform continues to grow and Uber and Lyft show no signs of slowing down.

“At the time, and it still remains one of my biggest passions, I was interested in how software could create new meaningful ways of working,” said Banister of the Thumbtack deal. “That’s the criteria I was looking for, which is, does this shift how people find work? Because I do believe that we can create jobs and we can create new types of jobs that never existed before with the platforms that we have today.”

UK watchdog orders Cambridge Analytica to give up data in US voter test case

Another big development in the personal data misuse saga attached to the controversial Trump campaign-linked UK-based political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica — which could lead to fresh light being shed on how the company and its multiple affiliates acquired and processed US citizens’ personal data to build profiles on millions of voters for political targeting purposes.

The UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, has today announced that it’s served an enforcement notice on Cambridge Analytica affiliate SCL Elections, under the UK’s 1998 Data Protection Act.

The company has been ordered to give up all the data it holds on one US academic within 30 days — with the ICO warning that: “Failure to do so is a criminal offence, punishable in the courts by an unlimited fine.”

The notice follows a subject access request (SAR) filed in January last year by US-based academic, David Carroll after he became suspicious about how the company was able to build psychographic profiles of US voters. And while Carroll is not a UK citizen, he discovered his personal data had been processed in the UK — so decided to bring a test case by requesting his personal data under UK law.

Carroll’s complaint, and the ICO’s decision to issue an enforcement notice in support of it, looks to have paved the way for millions of US voters to also ask Cambridge Analytica for their data (the company claimed to have up to 7,000 data points on the entire US electorate, circa 240M people — so just imagine the class action that could be filed here… ).

The Guardian reports that Cambridge Analytica had tried to dismiss Carroll’s argument by claiming he had no more rights “than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan”. The ICO clearly disagrees.

Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group responded to Carroll’s original SAR in March 2017 but he was unimpressed by the partial data they sent him — which ranked his interests on a selection of topics (including gun rights, immigration, healthcare, education and the environment) yet did not explain how the scores had been calculated.

It also listed his likely partisanship and propensity to vote in the 2016 US election — again without explaining how those predictions had been generated.

So Carroll complained to the UK’s data watchdog in September 2017 — which began sending its own letters to CA/SCL, leading to further unsatisfactory responses.

“The company’s reply refused to address the ICO’s questions and incorrectly stated Prof Caroll had no legal entitlement to it because he wasn’t a UK citizen or based in this country. The ICO reiterated this was not legally correct in a letter to SCL the following month,” the ICO writes today. “In November 2017, the company replied, denying that the ICO had any jurisdiction or that Prof Carroll was legally entitled to his data, adding that SCL did “.. not expect to be further harassed with this sort of correspondence”.”

In a strongly worded statement, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham further adds:

The company has consistently refused to co-operate with our investigation into this case and has refused to answer our specific enquiries in relation to the complainant’s personal data — what they had, where they got it from and on what legal basis they held it.

The right to request personal data that an organisation holds about you is a cornerstone right in data protection law and it is important that Professor Carroll, and other members of the public, understand what personal data Cambridge Analytica held and how they analysed it.

We are aware of recent media reports concerning Cambridge Analytica’s future but whether or not the people behind the company decide to fold their operation, a continued refusal to engage with the ICO will potentially breach an Enforcement Notice and that then becomes a criminal matter.

Since mid-March this year, Cambridge Analytica’s name (along with the names of various affiliates) has been all over headlines relating to a major Facebook data misuse scandal, after press reports revealed in granular detail how an app developer had used the social media’s platform’s 2014 API structure to extract and process large amounts of users’ personal data, passing psychometrically modeled scores on US voters to Cambridge Analytica for political targeting.

But Carroll’s curiosity about what data Cambridge Analytica might hold about him predates the scandal blowing up last month. Although journalists had actually raised questions about the company as far back as December 2015 — when the Guardian reported that the company was working for the Ted Cruz campaign, using detailed psychological profiles of voters derived from tens of millions of Facebook users’ data.

Though it was not until last month that Facebook confirmed as many as 87 million users could have had personal data misappropriated.

Carroll, who has studied the Internet ad tech industry as part of his academic work, reckons Facebook is not the sole source of the data in this case, telling the Guardian he expects to find a whole host of other companies are also implicated in this murky data economy where people’s personal information is quietly traded and passed around for highly charged political purposes — bankrolled by billionaires.

“I think we’re going to find that this goes way beyond Facebook and that all sorts of things are being inferred about us and then used for political purposes,” he told the newspaper.

Under mounting political, legal and public pressure, Cambridge Analytica claimed to be shutting down this week — but the move appears more like a rebranding exercise, as parent entity, SCL Group, maintains a sprawling network of companies and linked entities. (Such as one called Emerdata, which was founded in mid-2017 and is listed at the same address as SCL Elections, and has many of the same investors and management as Cambridge Analytica… But presumably hasn’t yet been barred from social media giants’ ad platforms, as its predecessor has.)

Closing one of the entities embroiled in the scandal could also be a tactic to impede ongoing investigations, such as the one by the ICO — as Denham’s statement alludes, by warning that any breach of the enforcement notice could lead to criminal proceedings being brought against the owners and operators of Cambridge Analytica’s parent entity.

In March ICO officials obtained a warrant to enter and search Cambridge Analytica’s London offices, removing documents and computers for examination as part of a wider, year-long investigation into the use of personal data and analytics by political campaigns, parties, social media companies and other commercial actors. And last month the watchdog said 30 organizations — including Facebook — were now part of that investigation.

The Guardian also reports that the ICO has suggested to Cambridge Analytica that if it has difficulties complying with the enforcement notice it should hand over passwords for the servers seized during the March raid on its London office – raising questions about how much data the watchdog has been able to retrieve from the seized servers.

SCL Group’s website contains no obvious contact details beyond a company LinkedIn profile — a link which appears to be defunct. But we reached out to SCL Group’s CEO Nigel Oakes, who has maintained a public LinkedIn presence, to ask if he has any response to the ICO enforcement notice.

Meanwhile Cambridge Analytica continues to use its public Twitter account to distribute a stream of rebuttals and alternative ‘facts’.

Badoo adds Live Video chat to its dating apps

European dating giant Badoo has added a live video chat feature to its apps, giving users the chance to talk face-to-face with matches from the comfort of their own home — and even before agreeing to go out on a first date.

It’s claiming it’s the first dating app service to add a live video feature, though clearly major players in the space were not holding back because of the complexity of the technical challenge involved.

Rather live video in a dating app context raises some immediate risk flags, including around inappropriate behavior which could put off users.

And for examples on that front you only need recall the kind of content that veteran Internet service Chatroulette was famed for serving straight up — if you were brave enough to play.

(“I pressed ‘play’ last night at around 3:00 am PST and after about 45 clicks on ‘Next’ encountered 5 straight up penis shots,” began TechCrunch’s former co-editor Alexia Tsotsis’ 2010 account of testing the service — which deploys live video chat without any kind of contextual wrapper, dating or otherwise. Clearly Badoo will be hoping to achieve a much better ratio of quality conversation to animated phalli.)

But even beyond the risk of moving dick pics, video chatting with strangers can just be straight up awkward for people to jump into — perhaps especially in a dating context, where singles are trying to make a good impression and won’t want to risk coming across badly if it means they lose out on a potential date.

Sending an opening text to a dating match from a cold start can be tricky enough, without ramping up the pressure to impress by making ‘breaking the ice’ into a video call.

So while dating apps have been playing around with video for a while now it’s mostly been in the style of the Snapchat Stories format — letting users augment their profiles with a bit of richer media storytelling, without the content and confidence risks associated with unmoderated live video. Tinder also recently introduced a GIF-style video loops feature. And it’s a big step from curated and controlled video snippets to the freeform risk and rush of live video.

Regardless, Badoo is diving in — so full marks for taking the plunge.

The feature has been introduced with some prudent limits too though. Badoo says video chat will only be switched on once both parties have matched and exchanged at least one message each.

And on the inappropriate content front, it has this guidance: “If a user is not what you expected, you can easily block or report that person so they will no longer be able to contact you again.” So basically if you get flashed, you can block and report the flasher.

To start a video chat with a match they’ve messaged with a user taps the icon in the top right corner of the chat screen — then they have to wait (and hope) for their call to be accepted.

While there are risks here, there is the potential for the feature to be really useful in an online dating context — if enough users can get over the confidence bump to use it.

Video chats could help to solve the core problem for online daters of how to know whether there’s any chemistry with a match before you actually meet them. Because while two people can aesthetically appreciate each other’s Instagram portraits from afar, and even like the cut of each other’s textual jib remotely, they still can’t know for sure ahead of time whether there’s any chemistry until they meet. And by then it’s too late — hence all those awkward first date stories.

Live video chatting isn’t as informative as meeting in person, of course, but it’s the next best thing technology can deliver for now — hence Badoo couching the feature as a way to “audition your date” before you meet. Though that phrasing does risk amping up the pressure.

The company also says live video can help enhance dating app safety — saying the feature can be a way for users to suss out a stranger to see whether seem trustworthy before risking meeting in person, and also help to weed out fake profiles and catfishing attempts — arguing: “It’s a safe way to have clarity on exactly who you’re talking to.”

So it may help to figure out if that stunner you matched with really is a Russian model wanting to date you or some Kremlin-backed scammer. (Though Badoo does already have some features aimed at thwarting catfishing, such as a request a selfie feature and a photo verification option; and, well, fake Russian models are unlikely to ever pick up your incoming call — unless it’s a very sophisticated scam indeed. Or, well, you’re actually talking to a professional dating service who your match has paid to carry out their dating ‘grunt work’ — in which case they’ll make you schedule in a live video hours or days in advance.)

On the flip side, live video chatting will inevitably be more daunting for less confident singles to use, so certain users may end up feeling disadvantaged and/or falling to the back of the dating queue vs more extroverted types who relish the opportunity to express themselves in the moment and in front of a lens.

Or it could just end up being a feature that attracts only a subset of likeminded users and the rest carry on as normal.

Now that Facebook has decided to take inspiration from Bang With Friends and directly cater to date-seekers inside its walled garden — announcing a forthcoming matchmaking service at its f8 conference yesterday — it’s clear that dedicated dating/matchmaking services like Badoo are going to have to up their game to stave off the competitive threat. So offering richer feature sets to further engage their communities of singles is going to be important.

Facebook’s dating foray has been given the unfortunate name of ‘FaceDate’ but will nonetheless benefit from the massive leg over of Facebook’s gigantic reach combined with the gravitational network pull of it owning and operating multiple popular social services.

The company also has oodles of data — thanks to its pervasive snooping on people’s online activities — so if you buy into the theory that love can be algorithmically reverse engineered then Facebook certainly has enough data-points to play at being Emma.

It does not yet have the direct community of daters though — so it’s coming from behind in that sense. And young users have been less engaged on Facebook itself for a while — preferring other social apps like Instagram, for example.

Even so, dating apps like Badoo can’t afford to get complacent and will need to work hard to keep their communities engaged — or risk Facebook spinning up another gravitational blackhole to suck out their USP.  This is why investors punished Match’s stock yesterday.

Right now, Badoo has around 380M users, and names its best markets as Europe and South America. It also says it sees 300,000+ daily sign-ups, along with 60 million swipes and six million matches each day — running a live tracker of usage here. It’ll be hoping the new live video feature keeps those numbers tracking up.