All posts in “Apps”

DuckDuckGo adds tracker blocking to help curb the wider surveillance web


Some major product news from veteran anti-tracking search engine DuckDuckGo: Today it’s launched revamped mobile apps and browser extensions that bake in a tracker blocker for third party sites, and include a suite of other privacy features intended to help users keep surfing privately as they navigate around the web.

The apps and browser extensions are available globally for Android, iOS, Chrome, Firefox and Safari as of now. (DDG tells us Opera is also on its radar but there’s no launch date yet.)

“Our vision has been to set the standard of trust online,” says CEO and founder Gabe Weinberg, discussing the new products. “[To date] we’ve been really focused on the search engine because it’s really complicated to compete with Google in their core market. But now that we feel we can handle that we are making progress on this broader vision of protecting people across the Internet.

“What we’re really trying to do is move beyond a search box… What we realized from talking to people, especially over the last two years, is that privacy risks have gone completely mainstream.

People really want a mainstream, simple solution for privacy.

“People really want a mainstream, simple solution for privacy.”

DDG’s aim is to create a ‘use anywhere’ privacy tool that combines access to its private search engine with tracker blocking and a bundle of other “privacy essentials” — such as an encryption protection feature that automatically sends a user to an encrypted version of a website (if there is one), instead of accepting a default non-encrypted version.

Also new: DDG is serving up a privacy rating for each website visited. This grade is based on how many hidden trackers a site is deploying; whether it’s encrypting your connection; and also considering the site’s own privacy policy (for the latter activity DDG is partnering with terms of service rating initiative, ToS;DR, but also notes that “most privacy policies still remain unstudied” so says it’s going to be helping that organization rate and label “as many websites as possible” too).

“The unfortunate reality is that hardly any sites really deserve an ‘A’ on privacy,” says Weinberg on this. “We can get most sites up to a ‘B’ if we can… block all the trackers and get encryption. Then the gulf between the ‘B’ and the ‘A’ is actually their privacy policies.

“Unfortunately… even if things are blocked and encrypted then the site itself can still collect data as a first party and sell it. And so to really get an ‘A’ rating the privacy policy needs to be vetted.”

For tracker blocking, he says DDG is using some technology from EasyList and Disconnect but also “running through our own tests to try to add to that, as well as make it so that less websites break when you use it”. (To be clear, it’s not doing any ad-blocking; it’s just blocking third party trackers.)

Weinberg claims the tracker blocker is “very effective now”, leaning on the open source community’s expertise, but says DDG also wants to build on the tool and add more privacy and blocking technologies over time — suggesting, for example, a feature that could thwart hidden cryptocurrency miners, which can get embedded on websites, as something else he’d like to add in future.

Asked how DDG’s approach stacks up compared to Mozilla-backed private search browser Cliqz, which last year acquired the Ghostery anti-tracker tool so is playing in a pretty similar space, Weinberg argues the rival product isn’t “really integrated”. “They’re more going after a pure browser situation whereas what we’re saying is, anywhere you are, on any device or major browser, we can augment it to help protect your privacy there in a seamless way,” he says.

“In general, I think that privacy is mainstream and people want simple, seamless solutions and they just don’t exist — until now,” he continues, adding: “We expect most of our search engine users to accept and use the extension and the app because it really extends their privacy protection.

“And beyond our user base, I think this is something that all consumers could benefit from — so we’re hoping that it gets downloaded widely.”

DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014, according to Weinberg. (It makes money not by tracking and profiling its users, as Google does, but by serving ads based on the search terms being used at the point of each search, and also from affiliate revenue.) Hence now feeling flush enough with cash to work on expanding beyond the core private search offering.

Last year DDG’s search engine served up just under 6BN private searches — with usage up around 50 per cent on 2016 levels. (Given it doesn’t track individual users it can’t really break out firm user metrics but Weinberg says third party estimates peg users at around 25M at this point.)

On the growth point, DDG says that over a third (36%) of all searches ever entered in its ten-year lifespan were conducted in 2017 alone. So the usage spike it got in 2013, after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about government mass surveillance programs, has evidently turned into some sustained momentum.

tl;dr, privacy isn’t just a passing fad. Because mass surveillance isn’t just a government activity. The commercial web is lousy with trackers and data brokers too — and Weinberg argues web users are increasingly waking up to how they are being stalked around the Internet.

“In the last couple of years mainstream people have really opened up to the idea that the Internet’s pretty creepy out there — and it’s in large part due to Google and Facebook,” he says. “And in particular that they’re amassing unprecedented amounts of personal information on each person.”

The pair’s use of online tracking for online profiling to power their respective hypertargeted advertising platforms is “at best, annoying”, argues Weinberg, “and at worst causing major political upheavals, like the Russian ad interference” (such as in the US election and the UK’s brexit referendum, to name just two examples on that front).

He cites figures that trackers used by Google are now on 76% of the top million websites and Facebook’s trackers are on 24% of pages — saying it drops off “pretty quickly after that”, with Twitter on just 12%.

Literally any site you visit you’re likely to have Facebook, Google watching you there.

“I think people are aware now that hidden trackers are around, and slurping up their personal information. What they don’t realize, though, is how pervasive Google and Facebook trackers are,” he suggests.

“Literally any site you visit you’re likely to have Facebook, Google watching you there. That’s the piece that I think people are starting to wake up to now.”

The other problem that he argues is exacerbated by mass surveillance ad-targeting online business models is filter bubbles — aka the strategy of platforms using people’s own biases as a tactic to keep them clicking by reductively feeding them more of the same stuff.

And, again, concern about the societal impact of filter bubbles has increasingly become a mainstream discussion point in recent months and years.

Weinberg explains that the tracker blocker aspect of DDG’s new products group trackers into networks to try to make it easier for people to understand which companies are responsible for tracking you. So instead of just saying something generic — like it’s ‘blocking 25 trackers’, as a typical anti-tracker tool might — users of DDG’s tool will be told which tracker networks are being blocked and “what their purpose is”.

“When people realize the harms… of filter bubble and pervasive ads those emotionally resonant with people and they’d like to get rid of them. And this is the easiest way to do that,” he adds.

In the European Union, an updated online privacy framework, GDPR, will apply from May. This regulation makes explicit mention of online profiling, including a right for people to object to this kind of activity — and some privacy experts suggest it could cause big upheavals for adtech and online profiling.

But asked for his take on GDPR’s implications for profiling, Weinberg isn’t confident it will be much of a barrier to the web’s two main commercial surveillance entities: Facebook and Google.

“I’m a big fan of the regulation and I’m hopeful that a lot of these kind of more hidden data brokers that don’t have consumer relationships are really going to get caught out with it because they can’t get consent,” he says. “But unfortunately, the way I see it is — Facebook and Google — I don’t think they seem like they’re going to be as affected by the regulation.

“Because while consent will be required in much more vigorous ways, I think that they’re going to push that through their products. And then people will end up consenting.”

“I think you need a different consumer backlash as well — either people literally leaving the services. Or, in this case, in between: Blocking all their hidden trackers across the web. And not waiting for them to take any major action to curb their surveillance,” he adds.

Netflix is now worth more than $100B


Netflix crossed a fun milestone today, crossing the $100 billion mark for its market cap as it once again surprised industry observers with better-than-expected growth in its subscribers.

We’ll get to the financial numbers in a minute but, as usual, the big story here is that it continues to wow Wall Street with impressive growth in its subscriber numbers. The company said it added more than 8 million new subscribers total after already setting pretty robust targets for the fourth quarter this year, giving it a healthy push as it crossed the $100 billion mark after the report came out this afternoon.

Here’s the rundown:

Netflix’s biggest challenge has been to aggressively invest in good original content that’s going to bring in new subscribers. While its shows may clean up at various awards shows like the Emmys, it still has to show that it can convert those awards into raw subscribers. But thanks to what appears to be continuing success with its original content like Stranger Things, as well other returning seasons for shows like The Crown, it’s been able to continue its staggering run.

While the company’s core financials actually came in roughly in line with what Wall Street was looking for (which is still important), Netflix’s subscriber numbers are usually the best indicator for the core health of the company. That recurring revenue stream — and its growth — is critical as it continues to very aggressively spend on new content.

And that aggressive spend only seems to get more aggressive every time we hear from the company. Netflix is now saying that it expects to spend between $7.5 billion and $8 billion on content in 2018 — which is around in line with what it said in October when it said it would spend between $7 billion and $8 billion. It’s the same range, but tuning up that bottom end is still an important indicator.

Netflix shows picked up 20 Emmy awards last year, but just having a shiny object on a shelf isn’t something that’s going to indicate that the company is going to continue to grow at a healthy clip. In the face of an increasingly crowded market, Netflix has to demonstrate its ability to continue to offer lasting value for subscribers — especially as it continues to grow abroad. The company, of course, has plenty of benefits in terms of how it handles its shows when it makes them itself.

Netflix also tucked another newsy bit into the report: the addition of new board member Rodolphe Belmer, former CEO of Canal+. As the company continues to expand internationally, bringing on people with experience like Belmer of course makes sense.

Here’s the final slash line for the company’s report today:

  • Revenue: $3.29 billion, compared to $3.28 billion estimates from Wall Street
  • Earnings: 41 cents per share, in line with estimates from Wall Street
  • Q4 US subscriber additions: 1.98 million
  • Q4 International subscriber additions: 6.36 million
  • Q1 forecast US additions: 1.45 million
  • Q1 forecast international additions: 4.90 million

Featured Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How to price cryptocurrencies

Predicting cryptocurrency prices is a fool’s game yet this fool is about to try. The drivers of a single cryptocurrency’s value are currently too varied and vague to make assessments based on any one point. News is trending up on Bitcoin? Maybe there’s a hack or an API failure that is driving it down at the same time. Ethereum looking sluggish? Who knows: maybe someone will build a new smarter DAO tomorrow that will draw in the big spenders.

So how do you invest or, more correctly, on which currency should you bet?

The key to understanding what to buy or sell and when to hold is to use the tools associated with assessing the value of open source projects. This has been said again and again but to understand the current crypto boom you have to go back to the quiet rise of Linux.

Linux appeared on most radars during the Dot Com bubble. At that time, if you wanted to set up a web server, you had to physically ship a Windows server or Sun Sparc Station to a server farm where it would do the hard work of delivering Pets.com HTML. At the same time Linux, like a freight train running on a parallel path to Microsoft and Sun, would consistently allow developers to build one-off projects very quickly and easily using an OS and toolset that were improving daily. In comparison, then, the massive hardware and software expenditures associated with the status quo solution providers were deeply inefficient and very quickly all of the tech giants who made their money on software now made their money on services or, like Sun, folded.

From the acorn of Linux an open source forest bloomed. But there was one clear problem: you couldn’t make money from open source. You could consult and you could sell products that used open source components but early builders built primarily for the betterment of humanity and not the betterment of their bank accounts.

Cryptocurrencies have followed the Linux model almost exactly but cryptocurrencies have cash value. Therefore when you’re working on a crypto project you’re not doing it for the common good or for the joy of writing free software. You’re writing it with the expectation of a big payout. This, therefore, clouds the value judgements of many programmers. The same folks that brought you Python, PHP, Django, and Node.js are back… and now they’re programming money.

This year will be the year of great reckoning in the token sale and cryptocurrency space. While many companies have been able to get away with poor or unusable codebases I doubt developers will let future companies get away with so much smoke and mirrors. It’s safe to say we can expect posts like this one detailing Storj’s anemic code base to become the norm and, more important, that these commentaries will sink many so-called ICOs. Though massive, the money trough that is flowing from ICO to ICO is finite and at some point there will be greater scrutiny paid to incomplete work.

What does this mean? It means to understand cryptocurrency you have to treat it like a startup. Does it have a good team? Does it have a good product? Does the product work? Would someone want to use it? It’s far too early to assess the value of cryptocurrency as a whole but if we assume that tokens or coins will become the way computers pay each other in the future. This lets us hand wave away a lot of doubt. After all, not many people knew in 2000 that Apache was going to beat nearly every other web server in a crowded market or that Ubuntu instances would be so common that you’d spin them up and destroy them in an instant.

The key to understanding cryptocurrency pricing is to ignore the froth, hype, and FUD and instead focus on true utility. Do you think that some day your phone will pay another phone for, say, an in game perk? Do you expect the credit card system to fold in the face of an Internet of Value? Do you expect that one day you’ll move through life splashing out small bits of value in order to make yourself more comfortable? Then by all means buy and hold or speculate on things that you think will make your life better. If you don’t expect the Internet of Value to improve your life the way the TCP/IP Internet did (or you do not understand enough to hold an opinion) then you’re probably not cut out for this. NASDAQ is always open, at least during banker’s hours.

Still will us? Good, here are my predictions:

Here is my assessment of what you should look at when considering an “investment” in cryptocurrencies. There are a number of caveats we must address before we begin.

  • Crypto is not a monetary investment in a real currency but an investment in a pie-in-the-sky technofuture. That’s right: when you buy crypto you’re basically assuming that we’ll all be on the deck of the Starship Enterprise exchanging them like Galactic Credits one day. This is the only inevitable future for crypto bulls. While you can force crypto into various economic models and hope for the best, the entire platform is techno-utopianist and assumes all sorts of exciting and unlikely things will come to pass in the next few years. If you have spare cash lying around and you like Star Wars then you’re golden. If you bought bitcoin on a credit card because your cousin told you to then you’re probably going to have a bad time.
  • Don’t trust anyone. There is no guarantee and, in addition to offering the disclaimer that this is not investment advice and that this is in no way an endorsement of any particular cryptocurrency or even the concept in general, we must understand that everything I write here could be wrong. In fact, everything ever written about crypto could be wrong and anyone who is trying to sell you a token with exciting upside is almost certainly wrong. In short, everyone is wrong and everyone is out to get you so be very, very careful.
  • You might as well hold. If you bought when BTC was $18,000 you’d best just hold on. Right now you’re in Pascal’s Wager territory. Yes, maybe you’re angry at crypto for screwing you but maybe you were just stupid and you got in too high and now you might as well keep believing because nothing is certain or you can admit that you were a bit overeager and now you’re being punished for it but that there is some sort of bitcoin god out there watching over you. Ultimately you need to take a deep breath, agree that all of this is pretty freaking weird, and hold on.

Now on with the assessments.

Bitcoin – Expect a rise over the next year that will surpass the current low. Also expect bumps as the SEC and other federal agencies around the world begin regulating the buying and selling of cryptocurrencies in very real ways. Now that banks are in on the joke they’re going to want to reduce risk. Therefore the bitcoin will become digital gold, a staid, boring, and volatility proof safe haven for speculators. Although all but unusable as a real currency, it’s good enough for what we need it to do and we can also expect quantum computing hardware to change the face of the oldest and most familiar cryptocurrency.

Ethereum – Ethereum could sustain another few thousand dollars on its price as long as Vitalik Buterin, the creator, doesn’t throw too much cold water on it. Like a remorseful Victor Frankenstein, Buterin tends to make amazing things and then denigrate them online, a sort of self-flagellation that is actually quite useful in a space full of froth and outright lies. Ethereum is the closest we’ve come to a useful cryptocurrency but it is still the Raspberry Pi of distributed computing – it’s a useful and clever hack that makes it easy to experiment but no one has quite replaced the old systems with new distributed data stores or applications. In short, it’s a really exciting technology but nobody knows what to do with it.

Letgo takes on Craigslist with addition of housing listings


Everyone wants to be the Craigslist killer. In November, Facebook expanded its Marketplace section to include partners’ housing rentals alongside secondhand merchandise, and today the number three shopping app letgo is doing the same. The company says that, starting today, its tens of millions of users can now quickly snap a few photos and add a description to list a housing rental or sale on its app.

The app, which has over 75 million downloads to date, is one of the top apps in its category, today only falling behind Amazon and Wish in the iOS App Store’s Top Free Shopping section. ComScore also recently pegged the app as the second fastest-growing in the U.S., in its 2017 Mobile App Report, putting it ahead of Lyft, Venmo and others based on monthly traffic growth.

Letgo competes not only with giants like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, but similar secondhand apps like OfferUp, Mercari and eBay, which are all more lowly-ranked at this time.

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Today’s addition of housing is the first time letgo has expanded beyond secondhand items.

To take advantage of the new feature, letgo users take a photo then fill in a brief text description about the property for rent or sale. More photos can be added to the posting at any time, and interested users can use letgo to chat and ask more questions. The app also includes user profiles, so potential renters or buyers can see who they’re chatting with and how they’ve been reviewed by others on the service.

“We see this as the natural evolution of a vast and diverse marketplace like ours, especially as we approach the 100M-download milestone,” said letgo co-founder Alec Oxenford , in a statement. “We’ve designed letgo to make it effortless to list what you don’t need and find what you do in your own neighborhood, whether that’s a snowboard, an SUV or a two-bedroom apartment with a view.”

The company says its users have posted over 200 million secondhand listings to its service since its launch in 2015, but declined to share how many of those translated to sales, its revenue, or how many users are active on its app on a monthly basis, beyond saying it’s “in the tens of millions monthly.”

Letgo also told us its users have sent over 3 billion messages in its app to date, and it sees tens of million repeat visitors on a monthly basis.

The move follows Facebook’s launch of partners’ housing rentals in November, which included pulling in listings from sources like Apartment List and Zumper. However, the social network had already allowed users to post their own listings to this same section. Letgo’s implementation is different because it’s not using partner data at this time. (Facebook also now allows for Home Sales listings, the same as letgo.)

Letgo still has a way to go to become a viable competitor to Craigslist, however. While Facebook’s Marketplace has expanded beyond secondhand goods to also include vehicles, jobs, tickets, and daily deals, in addition to secondhand items, letgo is only now entering this broader market of
“non-merchandise.”

The company says the new functionality is rolling out gradually across its marketplace and will be available to all U.S. users by the end of the month.

HQ Trivia finally makes its UK debut

This is anything but trivial: the popular app-based game show HQ Trivia has made it to the UK. 

Now, Brits can compete for $11 winnings with regular games geared toward UK audiences. One of the game’s hosts Sharon Carpenter, who is from England, will be the popular online show’s host for across the pond.

The first British game kicked off Sunday. It seems like British players were into the game after months of playing the “American” version and waking up at odd hours to compete.

The game is still only available for iPhone users (though Android users should be rewarded soon), but that hasn’t stopped its rising popularity. And now all that knowledge about tea, (European) football, and the royal family will come in handy.

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