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India moves closer to regulating internet services as it fears ‘unimaginable disruption to democracy’

India said on Monday that it is moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

In a legal document filed with the country’s apex Supreme Court, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said it would formulate the rules to regulate intermediaries by January 15, 2020.

In the legal filing, the government department said the internet had “emerged as a potent tool to cause unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity.” Oversight of intermediaries, the ministry said, would help in addressing the “ever growing threats to individual rights and nation’s integrity, sovereignty and security.”

The Indian government published a draft of guidelines for consultation late last year. The proposed rules, which revise the 2011 laws, identified any service — social media or otherwise — that have more than 5 million users as intermediaries.

Government officials said at the time that modern rules were needed, otherwise circulation of false information and other misuse of internet platforms would continue to flourish.

The Monday filing comes as a response to an ongoing case in India filed by Facebook to prevent the government from forcing WhatsApp to introduce a system that would enable revealing the source of messages exchanged on the popular instant messaging platform, which counts India as its biggest market with more than 400 million users.

Some have suggested that social media platforms should require their users in India to link their accounts with Aadhaar — a government-issued, 12-digit biometric ID. More than 1.2 billion people in India have been enrolled in the system.

Facebook executives have argued that meeting such demands would require breaking the end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp users enjoy globally. The company executives have said that taking away the encryption would compromise the safety and privacy of its users. The Supreme Court will hear Facebook’s case on Tuesday.

India’s online population has ballooned in recent years. More than 600 million users in India are online today, according to industry estimates. The proliferation of low-cost Android handsets and access to low-cost mobile data in the nation have seen “more and more people in India become part of the internet and social media platforms.”

“On the one hand, technology has led to economic growth and societal development, on the other hand there has been an exponential rise in hate speech, fake news, public order, anti-national activities, defamatory postings, and other unlawful activities using Internet/social media platforms,” a lower court told the apex court earlier.

Is there room for a U.S. equivalent to China’s #1 news app?

In China, Toutiao is literally big news.

Not only has its parent company ByteDance achieved a $75 billion valuation, two of its apps — Toutiao, a news aggregator, and Douyin (Tik Tok in China) — are chipping into WeChat’s user engagement numbers, no small feat considering the central role WeChat plays in the daily lives of the region’s smartphone users.

The success of Toutiao (its name means “headline”) prompts the question: why hasn’t one news aggregator app achieved similar success in the United States? There, users can pick from a roster of news apps, including Google News, Apple News (on iOS), Flipboard, Nuzzel and SmartNews, but no app is truly analogous to Toutiao, at least in terms of reach. Many readers still get news from Google Search (not the company’s news app) and when they do use an app for news, it’s Facebook.

The top social media platform continues to be a major source of news for many Americans, even as they express reservations about the reliability of the content they find there. According to research from Columbia Journalism Review, 43% of Americans use Facebook and other social media platforms to get news, but 57% said they “expect the news they see on those platforms to be largely inaccurate.” Regardless, they stick with Facebook because it’s timely, convenient and they can share content with friends and read other’s comments.

The social media platform is one of the main reasons why no single news aggregator app has won over American users the same way Toutiao has in China, but it’s not the only one. Other factors, including differences between how the Internet developed in each country, also play a role, says Ruiwan Xu, the founder and CEO of CareerTu, an online education platform that focuses on data analytics, digital marketing and research.

While Americans first encountered the Internet on PCs and then shifted to mobile devices, many people in China first went online through their smartphones and the majority of the country’s 800 million Internet users access it through mobile. This makes them much more open to consuming content — including news and streaming video — on mobile.

YouTube founder secretly building sports fan game GreenPark

Chad Hurley is hunting for what comes after fantasy sports. He envisions a new way for fans to play by watching live and cheering for the athletes they love. Beyond a few scraps of info the YouTube co-founder would share and his new startup’s job listings revealed, we don’t know what Hurley’s game will feel like. But the company is called GreenPark Sports, and it’s launching in Spring 2020.

“There is an absence of compelling, inclusive ways for large masses of sports fans to compete together” Hurley tells me. “The idea of a ‘sports fan’ has evolved – it is now more a social behavior than ever before. We’re looking at a much bigger, inclusive way for all fans of sports and esports teams to play.”

GreenPark Sports Chad Hurley

Hurley already has an all-star team. One of GreenPark’s co-founders Nick Swinmurn helped start Zappos, while another Ken Martin created marketing agency BLITZ. Together they’ve raised an $8.5 million seed round led by SignalFire and joined by Sapphire Sports and Founders Fund. “With this team’s impeccable track record and vision for the future of fandom, this was an investment we had to make,” said Chris Farmer, founder and CEO of SignalFire.

It all comes down to allegiance — something Hurley, Swinmurn, and Martin truly understand. Everyone is seeking ways to belong and emblems to represent them. In an age when many of our most prized possessions from photographs to record collections have been digitized, we lack tangible objects that center our individuality. Culture increasingly centers around landmark events, with what we’ve done mattering more than what we own.

GreenPark could seize upon this moment by helping us to align our identities with a team. This instantly unlocks a likeminded community, a recurrent activity, and a unified aesthetic. And when reality gets heavy, people can lose themselves by hitching their spirits to the scoreboard.

Rather than just tabulating results after the match like in fantasy sports, GreenPark wants to be entwined with the spectacle as it happens. “We’re going to be working with a mix of ways to visualize the live game – from unique gamecast-like data to highlight clips. The social viewing experience can be much more than just the straight live video” Hurley explains.

GreenPark Sports Logo

He came up with GreenPark after selling assets of his video editing app Mixbit to BlueJeans a year ago. Hurley already had an interactive relationship with sports…though one that’s reserved for the rich: he’s part owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Football Club. Meanwhile, Swinmurn co-founded the Burlingame Dragons Football Club affiliated with San Jose’s team, and is on the board of Denmark’s FC Helsingør.

Those experiences taught them the satisfaction that comes from a deeper sense of ownership or allegiance with a team. GreenPark will give an opportunity for anyone to turn fandom into its own sport. “We shared a love of sports and set out to look into opportunities around legalized sports betting in the US” Hurley tells me.” But quickly they found “it was obvious the regulated space wouldn’t allow us to innovate as quickly as we wanted” and they saw a more opportunity amidst a younger mainstream audience.

“We’re not ready to disclose publicly the exact detailed gameplay yet” Hurley says. But here’s what we could cobble together from around the web.

GreenPark Sports lets you “Destroy the other teams’ fans” to “climb the leaderboards”, its site says cryptically. According to job listings, it will pipe in live game data, starting with the NBA and expanding to other leagues, and offer cartoon characters with facial expressions and full-body gestures to let users live out the highs and lows of matches. Don’t expect trivia questions or player stat memorization. It almost sounds like a massively multiplayer online fan arena. 

As with blockbuster games Fortnite or League Of Legends, GreenPark is free-to-play. But a mention of virtual clothing hints at monetization, where you could spruce up avatars with digital team apparel. Hurley tells me “We are in the perfect storm of the thirst for innovation at the traditional league level, the next level of maturing for esports, investment in sports betting and overall dire need to better understand today’s largest populace of sports fans – Millenial / Gen Z.” The closed beta launches in the Spring.

Screen Shot 2019 10 21 at 9.45.29 AM

There’s a massive hole to fill in the wake of the Draft Kings / FanDuel marketing sure a few years ago. Most apps in the space just carry scores or analysis, rather than community. “What’s amazing about being a fan of a team or player is the common bond you have with other fans” Hurley explains, “where even if you don’t know the other fans of your team – you are all in it to win it – together.”

Publications like The Athletic have proven there are plenty of fans willing to pay to feel closer to their favorite teams. The most direct competitor for GreenPark might be Strafe, that lets you track and predict the winners of esports matches.

People already spend tons of time on building fictional worlds like Minecraft and money outfitting their Fortnite avatar with the coolest clothes. If GreenPark can create a space for sports’ fan self-expression, it could create the online destination for legions of IRL enthusiasts that see who they root for as core to who they are.

Apple’s control over the App Store is no longer sustainable

Last week, Apple caved to the Chinese government and pulled an app called HKmap.live that was being used by Hong Kong protestors to crowdsource the location of police forces.

While Apple CEO Tim Cook defended Apple’s stance, the move is a reminder that Apple is the only judge and jury regarding what’s acceptable in the App Store — but as mobile devices are integrated into more aspects of our lives, it’s getting harder to justify such tight control over their software.

The current state of the App Store is a great example of the risks of running a marketplace that becomes too big. It also shows that we can expect wide-ranging marketplace regulation in the near future.

The App Store as video game console

Before Apple introduced the App Store in 2008, companies could distribute third-party apps and web services without oversight; consumers could buy floppy disks, download software from the internet or connect to any website.

But with the App Store, Apple decided to control the user experience from approval to distribution. And it has been a massive economic success. There are more than 2.2 million apps in the App Store that have generated over 130 billion downloads.

In many ways, the iOS app ecosystem works more like a video game console than a computer — developers submit games and apps to the maker of the platform, which starts a review process to see if third-party content complies with guidelines. If so, developers may list their game or app on the platform.

The PlayStation 4 has been around for six years and Sony has approved 2,294 games in total, around 380 games per year. Due to the sheer size of the App Store, Apple has faced challenges that console manufacturers have never faced.

Review guidelines are poorly enforced

Apple has written the App Store Review Guidelines, a lengthy document intended to answer all questions about what’s acceptable — but those rules are not enforced consistently, and the App Store isn’t a level playing field, discrepancies I’ve pointed out in the past.

As an example: rule 4.3, titled “Spam:”

Don’t create multiple Bundle IDs of the same app. If your app has different versions for specific locations, sports teams, universities, etc., consider submitting a single app and provide the variations using in-app purchase. Also avoid piling on to a category that is already saturated; the App Store has enough fart, burp, flashlight, and Kama Sutra apps already. Spamming the store may lead to your removal from the Developer Program.

And yet, customers can find plenty of categories with app duplicates and companies trying to game the App Store. For example, I found 13 different VoIP apps released by four companies. Each company had multiple versions of the same app in order to pick different names, keywords and categories to optimize search results.

When I pointed this out to Apple, they removed most of the duplicates in less than 24 hours, but it can’t remain the single source of truth if it doesn’t enforce its own rules properly.

Similarly, as Under the Radar recently pointed out, some developers will always find ways to abuse the App Store. For instance, shady developers acquire apps with a lot of positive ratings, transfer those apps to their own developer account, push updates with expensive weekly recurring subscriptions and take advantage of Apple’s obscure process to cancel subscriptions.

Economic interests first

In its most recent earnings release, Apple reported that Greater China represented 17% of the company’s revenue. The company also manufactures the vast majority of its products in Chinese factories. Apple has a lot to lose in China.

That’s why Apple’s actions in China don’t reflect the company’s principles. Cupertino claims to care deeply about privacy, but it uploads iCloud user data to a state-owned mobile operator in China.

The company says that it cares deeply about privacy but uploads iCloud user data to a state-owned mobile operator in China

Apple first removed HKmap.live from the App Store, then authorized the app again before removing it one more time. The only thing that changed between the first second removal is that the Chinese government started openly criticizing Apple about that specific case.

MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article.