All posts in “Grindr”

Backer of Musical.ly, Grindr and Opera to invest $50M in self-driving startup Pony.ai

A games publisher in China is following the path of its larger peer Tencent to back a wide spectrum of startups for financial gains. Beijing Kunlun Wanwei, or Kunlun, announced in a filing this week that it plans to inject $50 million into autonomous driving startup Pony.ai in exchange for a 3 percent stake.

Pony.ai confirmed the investment with TechCrunch in an email response, adding that the money contributes to its pre-B round of financing. The startup last pocketed $102 million, which valued it at nearly $1 billion. It has raised $214 million in total fundings, excluding its angel round, according to data from Crunchbase.

Shanghai-listed Kunlun has its bets on one of China’s most aggressive smart driving companies. Pony.ai, co-founded by James Peng, formerly a leader in Baidu’s self-driving division, was only second to Baidu in total autonomous miles driven in Beijing last year (although by a large margin).

While neither Kunlun nor Pony.ai provided an inkling of possible strategic collaboration between them, next-gen vehicles have become a much sought-after space for hosting entertainment content, and without a doubt that includes video games.

Few outside China’s internet industry know of Kunlun, which has over the years been squeezed by industry leaders Tencent and NetEase . The 11-year-old company has, however, gradually earned its reputation as a savvy investor. Led by Zhou Yahui, a shrewd investor himself, Kunlun has backed companies that broadened distribution channels for its gaming titles. Other fundings appear more tangential. Here’s a taste of Kunlun’s lucrative portfolio:

  • Musical.ly: Kunlun laid out $20 million for Musical.ly and cashed out $41.08 million when ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017, according to a filing. Musical.ly is now part of the popular short-video app TikTok.
  • Inke: Back in 2016, Kunlun invested 68 million yuan ($10 million) in live-streaming company Inke . By 2017, it had sold all its stakes in the startup and was poised to cash out a total of 824 million yuan ($123 million) after the transaction completed, according to a filing. Inke is currently the third-largest live-streaming app by monthly active devices in China, says data from iResearch.
  • Opera: Kunlun was part of a consortium that acquired the web browser in 2016 when it shelled out $600 million in investment. Through the consortium, Kunlun now owns a 48 percent stake in Opera, which floated on Nasdaq in 2018.
  • Grindr: Kunlun paid $93 million for a 60 percent stake in Grindr, the popular dating app for gay, bisexual, transgender and queer users, back in 2016, and completed the buyout with $152 million in fundings in 2018. Kunlun is reportedly looking to sell Grindr after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States decided its ownership of the dating app may threaten national security.
  • Qudian: Kunlun owned a 19.2 percent stake in Qudian when the micro-lender became one of the first Chinese fintech companies to list on Nasdaq. Kunlun has since been selling its stakes through a gradual exit and Zhou recently told analysts that his firm was expected to make around 2 billion yuan ($300 million) in profit from the Qudian investment.

The article has been updated to clarify Crunchbase’s data did not include Pony.ai’s angel round funding.

U.S. orders Chinese owners to sell Grindr dating app

Who's behind the mask?
Who’s behind the mask?

Image: alexander pohl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Grindr is about to come under new ownership, but not by choice.

The United States agency that reviews foreign investments in US companies, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), has told Grindr’s Chinese owners, Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd, that it must divest its ownership of Grindr, according to Reuters. Kunlun has reportedly already begun the sale process by soliciting interested investors and competitors.

The CFIUS did not state a reason for this order. But in recent years, CFIUS has been focused on privacy concerns and how foreign companies would treat personal data. U.S. senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal also sent a letter to Kunlun asking how it would protect users’ privacy after the firm acquired Grindr in 2016.

Ordinarily, when a foreign company wishes to invest in a US entity, the CFIUS should conduct a sale review process. The process is voluntary, and Kunlun bypassed it at the time of the sale. However, the order to sell is a consequence of Kunlun not getting the thumbs up from the US from the outset. Still, a mandate like this is “rare,” according to Reuters.

Chinese investment in United States firms rose dramatically between 2010 and 2015, reaching a peak of nearly $10 billion in 2015. According to a 2018 report from Politico, the strategy of acquiring American companies is part of China’s larger “Made in China 2025” initiative, which seeks to make China a hub of manufacturing — which includes IP — and not just assembly. 

The CFIUS was reportedly ill-equipped to proactively review and regulate these investments. Now, Chinese firms have stakes in recognizable companies like Uber and Airbnb, as well as scores of hardware and software companies responsible for handling Americans’ personal data.

China’s manufacturing ambitions have alarmed United States officials, particularly in the Trump administration. Concerns about China’s ability to obtain IP and compete with America have fueled Trump’s trade war, as well as growing enmity between the US government and Chinese tech firms such as Huawei and ZTE. IP theft and privacy concerns have been at the center of these battles, but a desire to prevent China from becoming a leader in big money frontiers, like 5G infrastructure, colors the background.

Since the CFIUS did not give a reason for its Grindr order, we can’t say whether this instance had anything to do with the climate of competition between the US and China in tech. But apparently, the CFIUS is coming around to fulfilling its duties around tech acquisitions that it had previously let slide.

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Dating apps face questions over age checks after report exposes child abuse

The UK government has said it could legislate to require age verification checks on users of dating apps, following an investigation into underage use of dating apps published by the Sunday Times yesterday.

The newspaper found more than 30 cases of child rape have been investigated by police related to use of dating apps including Grindr and Tinder since 2015. It reports that one 13-year-old boy with a profile on the Grindr app was raped or abused by at least 21 men. 

The Sunday Times also found 60 further instances of child sex offences related to the use of online dating services — including grooming, kidnapping and violent assault, according to the BBC, which covered the report.

The youngest victim is reported to have been just eight years old. The newspaper obtaining the data via freedom of information requests to UK police forces.

Responding to the Sunday Times’ investigation, a Tinder spokesperson told the BBC it uses automated and manual tools, and spends “millions of dollars annually”, to prevent and remove underage users and other inappropriate behaviour, saying it does not want minors on the platform.

Grindr also reacting to the report, providing the Times with a statement saying: “Any account of sexual abuse or other illegal behaviour is troubling to us as well as a clear violation of our terms of service. Our team is constantly working to improve our digital and human screening tools to prevent and remove improper underage use of our app.”

We’ve also reached out to the companies with additional questions.

The UK’s secretary of state for digital, media, culture and sport (DCMS), Jeremy Wright, dubbed the newspaper’s investigation “truly shocking”, describing it as further evidence that “online tech firms must do more to protect children”.

He also suggested the government could expand forthcoming age verification checks for accessing pornography to include dating apps — saying he would write to the dating app companies to ask “what measures they have in place to keep children safe from harm, including verifying their age”.

“If I’m not satisfied with their response, I reserve the right to take further action,” he added.

Age verification checks for viewing online porn are due to come into force in the UK in April, as part of the Digital Economy Act.

Those age checks, which are clearly not without controversy given the huge privacy considerations of creating a database of adult identities linked to porn viewing habits, have also been driven by concern about children’s exposure to graphic content online.

Last year the UK government committed to legislating on social media safety too, although it has yet to set out the detail of its policy plans. But a white paper is due imminently.

A parliamentary committee which reported last week urged the government to put a legal ‘duty of care’ on platforms to protect minors.

It also called for more robust systems for age verification. So it remains at least a possibility that some types of social media content could be age-gated in the country in future.

Last month the BBC reported on the death of a 14-year-old schoolgirl who killed herself in 2017 after being exposed to self-harm imagery on the platform.

Following the report, Instagram’s boss met with Wright and the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss concerns about the impact of suicide-related content circulating on the platform.

After the meeting Instagram announced it would ban graphic images of self-harm last week.

Earlier the same week the company responded to the public outcry over the story by saying it would no longer allow suicide related content to be promoted via its recommendation algorithms or surfaced via hashtags.

Also last week, the government’s chief medical advisors called for a code of conduct for social media platforms to protect vulnerable users.

The medical experts also called for greater transparency from platform giants to support public interest-based research into the potential mental health impacts of their platforms.

Grindr, other dating apps are working to add STD notification features

Popular dating apps could soon help stop the spread of record high STD infections among their users.

Grindr and other primarily gay dating apps are exploring ways to add the ability for people who test positive for an STD to notify partners using the app, Mashable has learned in multiple interviews with public health experts.

According to Dr. Heidi Bauer, the chief of STD control at the California Department of Health, and Dan Wohlfeiler, director of the health consortium Building Healthy Online Communities (BHOC), STD partner notification messages are currently under consideration by several different app-makers, including Grindr, with one possibility already in the design and piloting phase.

When asked for comment, Jack Harrison-Quintana, director of Grindr for Equality said, “Grindr works very closely with Building Healthy Online Communities on several initiatives including STD related notifications.”

According to Dr. Bauer and Wohlfeiler, the most immediate and likely iteration of this functionality will be through a section in the apps that links out to existing anonymous notification services. Wolfheiler said that this sort of service is “currently being designed and piloted,” but that there is no firm timeline for release. 

In-app messaging — in which an STD notification takes place entirely within the app ecosystem — is on the table as well.

“A number of different possibilities have been discussed,” Dr. Bauer said in a recent phone call with Mashable. “It’s just sort of a matter of feasibility and impact.”

“The decision made was, let’s go forth with this system right now, where we have a link to external website that can do that,” Wohlfeiler told Mashable. “And then we can continue to discuss other options as they go. So we’re really excited.”

This increased integration between gay dating apps and public health initiatives has come about thanks to the Building Healthy Online Communities consortium. Since 2014, BHOC brought hook-up app creators together with public health agencies and officials to promote HIV and STD prevention. 

BHOC participants include Grindr, Adam4Adam, Daddyhunt, and other apps, as well as the National Coalition of STD directors, the AIDS Foundation, and other organizations. Conversations about how the apps can play a bigger role in STD notification have been part of ongoing discussions in the consortium. 

When asked about the decision to link out to STD notification resources referenced by Wohlfeiler, Grindr’s Harrison-Quintana said, “We are exploring several additional sexual health-related features for our application. However, at this time, we are not disclosing any further details around this project.”

Grindr recently launched several features around HIV testing reminders and HIV status sharing. But until now, Grindr has neither shared plans for nor implemented broader STD partner notification.

The app Adam4Adam already includes a link on its Health Resources page to “STD notification services for partners and tricks,” which directs to InSpot.org. Adam4Adam could not be reached for further comment, though they are a BHOC partner.

The app Daddyhunt, another BHOC partner, plans to release a new version of its app this summer that will include an option to log the date of a user’s last STD test, and receive testing reminders every three months. Daddyhunt’s General Manager, Casey Crawford, said that it is also in preliminary discussions with BHOC about including partner STD notification resources as part of an upcoming user interface redesign.

STD rates, particularly syphilis, have climbed among men who have sex with men in recent years. A notification system that’s linked to or integrated into hookup apps would make it easier for infected patients to tell current and past sexual partners they should get tested. 

“I’m super optimistic that we’re going to move in that direction,” Dr. Bauer told Mashable. “We’re not quite there yet, but there are definitely discussions.”

This revelation comes two weeks after the California Department of Health’s chief of the division of communicable disease control, James Watt, told the San Francisco Chronicle he believes social media has played a significant role in the recent increase in STD infection rates. Experts appear to agree with his assessment, but have added the major caveat that other factors have also played a role in the recent uptick in STD infections.  

As for ways that apps can play a role in STD testing and messaging, Bauer said she can see the feature working in a few ways. 

The linking out option would essentially educate and provide access to notification services that app users might not know exist. That would certainly make it easier for people to contact former partners, and would be the simplest and easiest to implement option. However, Dr. Bauer also noted that an option that links out to an existing notification service relied on affected app users having the email or phone number of their past sexual partners. According to Dr. Bauer, most people who find partners on apps like Grindr do have the phone numbers of their partners. But a link out option would miss the swath of people whose communication was contained within the app.

“That is a potential gap,” Dr. Bauer said. “This workaround will work in the majority of situations, because people at least have a phone number. But there are going to be some people missed if no contact information is shared.”

As for in-app options, one iteration would make STD notification messaging an option between users. In this case, the app would allow its users to maintain contact with people through the app, in the event that they needed to be reached for the sake of STD notifications. Dr. Bauer says this could help stop the spread of STDs because it would enable people to notify a person they might have otherwise lost contact with. 

Another option would be that the apps would own the notifications process themselves, which would help a person notify a former partner, while remaining anonymous. 

“The app could take the responsibility, with the consent of the user, to send out a notification to a particular individual,” Bauer said. “The app could send a notification to say: ‘It’s really important that you get tested for STDs, and here’s a link to a zip code based search engine to find the closest STD clinic near you.'”

A capability like that could increase the rates of STD infection notification messages, thereby potentially stopping a chain of infection, and decreasing STD rates overall. That’s because people who might not otherwise notify partners of STDs, because of embarrassment, might utilize an anonymous notification process owned by the app to tell partners that they should get tested — without specifics. This mirrors the capabilities of services like STDCheck.com, that the linking option would direct users to.

App-integrated notification is the direction that Daddyhunt CEO Carl Sandler hopes to move in, as well. He wants to enable Daddyhunt users to notify one another about risks of infection, regardless of whether they exchanged phone numbers or not. However, Sandler acknowledged that creating that capability will be challenging — especially as an industry standard. But he is committed to working with BHOC to increase health and safety for the gay community.

“What we’re trying to move towards is a real dialogue into the intricacies of what it takes to actually deploy these features on a site by site, or app by app, basis, because everyone’s app is built differently,” Sandler said.

In addition to technical challenges, implementing STD notifications, especially anonymous ones, risks misuse and trolls. It’s easy to see how dates or even just conversations gone wrong could lead to retaliatory false STD notifications. 

Bauer said that the conversations between dating apps and the department of health have been an evolving process. 

“I think the initial discussions they were not excited about that,” Dr. Bauer said, about in-app notifications. “When we talk to them, we have to find something that fits in their business model.”

Bauer’s department has already collaborated with apps including Grindr for public health in important ways. The CA Department of Health partnered with Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff to alert users to get vaccinated during a 2016 meningitis outbreak in Los Angeles that was spreading within the gay community. And Bauer is enthusiastic about even further potential collaborations between departments of public health and dating apps. 

She thinks it’s crucial to understand how dating apps play a role in people’s sex lives. The connectivity and communication they offer could potentially provide a lot of a positive opportunities for public health.

“We’re trying to use some of the same technologies in communicating with people, and notifying folks with health alerts,” she told Mashable. “I think we can’t condemn technology by any stretch. We need to just understand it and better use it.”

To that end, BHOC conducted a survey in 2013 that asked app owners, hookup website users, and public health officials to find common ground about the role apps can play in HIV and STD prevention. The resulting study has continued to inform public health efforts, including ways to make STD partner notifications easier.

“Nothing’s off the table,” Wohlfeiler said.

We’ll swipe right on that.

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As Chinese censorship intensifies, gays are back while teenage mothers and tattoos are out

Following the passage of a new cybersecurity law and the removal of term limits from Chinese president Xi Jinping, China’s government is conducting a comprehensive crackdown on online discussions and content, with few companies spared the rod by the central government.

Among the casualties has been Bytedance, the extremely high-flying $20 billion media unicorn startup that was forced to publicly apologize for content that degraded the character of the nation. The government forced the company to shut down its popular Neihan Duanzi comedy app, as well as to remove its headline news app, Jinri Toutiao, for three weeks. The company announced that it would expand the number of human censors from 6,000 to 10,000.

Another high-flying media unicorn, Kuaishou, has been under fire for allowing teenage moms to be depicted in a positive light. The app is unique among China’s top social networks in focusing on ordinary Chinese, and is known for its focus on people outside of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The company has faced public criticism from central television channel CCTV, as well as from regulators who have demanded the company act more aggressively in removing the content, a demand to which the company has acquiesced.

Meanwhile, over at Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the company announced on Friday that it would ban violent and gay content from its service, following instructions from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. LGBT content has been in the crosshairs of the country’s media regulators for years; for example, censors banned “abnormal sexual behaviors” from being depicted in any media or mobile apps in 2017, a term which includes homosexuality.

However, in a rare about-face for corporate China and internet censors, the company announced that it would reverse its ban of LGBT-themed content, following thousands of comments and discussions online by gay Chinese citizens. The company’s crackdown on other content, though, is expected to continue.

There are other forms of censorship underway these days in China. China’s soccer players recently were banned from having tattoos, as it depicts a “dispirited culture,” which is banned on all media. Perhaps most importantly, the government has banned the use of private VPNs, in order to better control online discourse.

China’s censorship regime is certainly not new, but its intensity around culture and how it is depicted is relatively novel. While the Chinese government has generally kept a tight lid on political dissent, particularly since the Tiananmen Protests in 1989, it has generally used a lighter touch on non-political subjects.

However, the Communist Party of China is now attempting to control the culture much more directly, not just on broadcast media like television, but also on apps and devices throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Following the National People’s Congress in March, the regulation of China’s media has been reassigned from the government to the party’s Central Propaganda Department. Since then, the party has been working in overdrive to tamp down content that it deems to be foreign, crude, vulgar or not in the best spirit of the Chinese people.

While China’s media startups generally focus heavily on the mainland, their apps are also located in the app stores in other countries. Bytedance, which was forced to shut down its news app, also owns musical.ly, the popular music video app used by approximately 14 percent of American teenagers, according to some estimates. China’s censorship regime doesn’t stop at the nation’s borders then, but can extend its influence far wider.

Another example is Grindr, the popular gay dating app, which sold a majority share of its ownership to Beijing Kunlun Tech Company in early 2016.

The crackdown on speech is expected to continue over the coming weeks as the new rules are applied uniformly across the country. The situation is a reminder of the challenges of Chinese companies operating in the heavily controlled country.

Although there are many trade tensions between the U.S. and China these days, a key issue has been access to the Chinese market for American technology companies. Even if China were to open its borders though, it remains unclear how U.S. companies could faithfully apply the law of China while maintaining their own moral standards.