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Slack’s Quarterly Billing Growth Slows Due to COVID-19 Concessions




By Reuters | Updated: 9 September 2020

Slack Technologies’ billing growth, a key indicator of future revenue, slowed in the second quarter and the workplace messaging app owner said it took a $11 million (roughly Rs. 81 crores) hit in the first half due to the COVID-19 related concessions.

The company said it offered credits, payment in installments and billing duration of less than a year to help users tide over the economic downturn triggered by the health crisis, sending its shares down 18 percent after the bell.

Slack had in the previous quarter signaled weak demand from worst-affected industries like retail and travel, prompting it to withdraw its full-year billings target.

“In Q2, growth in many of our customers contracted or flattened versus normal seasonal trends. In August, growth began to trend at more typical seasonal levels,” Chief Financial Officer Allen Shim said in a call with analysts.

Slack’s quarterly billings rose 25 percent, but it fell short of the 38 percent growth it posted in the first quarter. Billings are an important metric for growth for a subscription-based platform like Slack.

Its second-quarter revenue topped expectations by nearly $7 million (roughly Rs. 51.5 crores), but that overachievement was not mirrored in the full-year outlook.

Slack’s annual revenue forecast of $870 million (roughly Rs. 64,092 crores) – $876 million (roughly Rs. 64,508 crores) was roughly in line with expectations of $872.3 million (roughly Rs. 64,235 crores).

Excluding items, the company broke even, compared with analysts’ average estimate of a loss of 3 cents per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Content Moderators Criticise Policies, Demand Better Treatment




By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 27 October 2020

As Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg prepares to be grilled by a Senate committee about the handling of politically-charged posts, content moderators are insisting that properly valuing their work is key.

Two former content moderators contracted in the US to make judgment calls on posts, and one other currently tackling the same challenge took part in a conference call with reporters on Monday.

The former and current content moderators expressed concerns about posts intended to cause trouble or bedevil the outcome of the forthcoming election.

The worker still on the job spoke under condition of anonymity, since such positions involve non-disclosure agreements restricting what they can say about their work,

“I certainly am not supposed to tell the truth about my work in public,” the Facebook content moderator said.

“The truth is this work is incredibly important but it’s done completely wrong and while the policy is constantly changed the situation seems to get worse.”

The current and former content moderators described stressful hours spent focused on torrents of hateful, disturbing posts with little regard given to their feedback or their well-being.

They called for Facebook to find a way to make them and their colleagues full-time employees, complete with the benefits for which tech companies are renowned, instead of keeping them at arms-length by outsourcing the work.

“Facebook could fix most of its problems if it would move away from outsourcing, value its moderators, and build them into its policy processes,” said former content moderator Allison Trebacz.

“Moderators are the heart of Facebook’s business, that’s how they should be treated.”

Zuckerberg has pushed back against concerns about hateful or violent posts at the social network by saying the social network has invested heavily in artificial intelligence and real humans to take down content violating its policies.

The bulk of that army of content moderators are contracted and their viewpoints, hard-won on the frontlines of the battle, are typically ignored, according to those who took part in the press briefing.

“I became a Facebook content moderator because I believed I could help make Facebook safer for my community and other communities who use it,” said Viana Ferguson, who left the job last year.

“But again and again, when I tried to address content that dripped with racism, or was a clear threat, I got told to get in line, our job was to agree.”

Zuckerberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey are to testify Wednesday before a Senate committee exploring the potential to weaken legal protections given to online platforms when it comes to what users post there.

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Quibi Streaming Service Shutting Down Just Months After Launch




By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 22 October 2020

Short-form streaming service Quibi announced Wednesday it is pulling the plug on the platform aimed at smartphone users hungry for entertainment on the go.

The brainchild of Hollywood powerhouse Jeffrey Katzenberg, Quibi launched in April with content tailored for busy people just as the pandemic compelled them to slow down and stay in.

“Quibi was founded to create the next generation of storytelling,” Katzenberg said in a release.

“The world has changed dramatically since Quibi launched and our standalone business model is no longer viable.”

Katzenberg reportedly tried to sell the startup’s catalogue of programmes to companies including NBCUniversal and Facebook without success.

The streaming service has more than 100 original series spanning a range of genres with episodes specifically designed for viewing on smartphones and lasting no more than 10 minutes each, according to the startup.

“We have assembled a world-class creative and engineering team that has created an original platform fueled by groundbreaking technology and IP, enabling consumers to view premium content in a whole new way,” Katzenberg said.

Quibi now plans to wind down operations and sell off its assets.

The fledgling platform scored 10 Emmy nominations including for cop spoof revival Reno 911! and dystopian thriller Most Dangerous Game including two Emmy wins for actors in “#FreeRayshawn.”

The multi-billion-dollar streaming platform had bet it could transform entertainment with short, Hollywood-quality clips.
‘Big idea’ gone bust

Industry legends and stars from Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro to Jennifer Lopez and Reese Witherspoon were among those who lined up to make movies and shows for the youth-focused, smartphone-only service.

Hollywood stars committed to work with Quibi thanks to Katzenberg, a towering figure in Tinseltown who ran Disney Studios for a decade and co-founded DreamWorks.

Quibi had also hoped to keep users coming back with daily news, sports and entertainment shows.

“Quibi was a big idea and there was no one who wanted to make a success of it more than we did,” Katzenberg and Quibi chief executive Meg Whitman said in a letter to its employees posted on Medium.

“Our failure was not for lack of trying; we’ve considered and exhausted every option available to us.”
Taking on titans

While Quibi specialised in short-form shows to watch during spare minutes of the day, say waiting for transit or taking a break at work, people who hunkered down at home due to the coronavirus pandemic found time for big-screen options in an increasingly competitive streaming television market.

Disney+ launched by The Walt Disney Company late last year reported having 57.5 million paid subscribers as of the end of June.

It leverages a huge catalogue of Disney animated classics along with its Pixar, Marvel and National Geographic movies, not to mention its wildly successful “Star Wars” franchise.

Meanwhile Netflix has added 28.1 million paying subscribers so far this year, reporting this week that it now has slightly more than 195 million total subscribers.

Netflix and rival Amazon Prime invest billions of dollars in original content to win fans and keep them loyal.

Apple TV launched late last year with a limited catalogue but a low-priced subscription service, while NBCUniversal Peacock and HBO Max streaming television launched earlier this year.

Quibi also had to compete for younger viewers’ time with millions of free, often user-generated, videos hosted by YouTube, TikTok, Facebook and Instagram.

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Facebook Under Scrutiny Over Handling of Children’s Data on Instagram




By Reuters | Updated: 19 October 2020

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has launched two inquiries into Facebook after concerns were raised about the social network giant’s handling of children’s personal data on Instagram.

The DPC, the main data privacy regulator in the European Union, received complaints from individuals and had identified “potential concerns” in relation to the processing of children’s personal data on Instagram, Deputy Commissioner Graham Doyle told Reuters in an emailed statement.

Both inquiries were launched last month, Doyle said in the statement.

Facebook did not immediately respond when contacted by Reuters on Sunday.

The Telegraph, which first reported the inquiry, said Instagram made the email addresses and phone numbers of users under 18 public.

The Irish regulator launched its probe following a complaint by David Stier, a US data scientist, the Telegraph added.

The first inquiry looks to establish if Facebook has the legal basis to process the data and whether it employs adequate protections and/or restrictions on Instagram.

“This inquiry will also consider whether Facebook meets its obligations as a data controller with regard to transparency requirements in its provision of Instagram to children,” Doyle said.

Instagram’s profile and account settings will be the focus of the second inquiry, examining whether the social media company is adhering to the regulator’s data protection requirements.

Ireland hosts the European headquarters of a number of US technology firms, making the DPC the EU’s lead regulator under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation’s “One Stop Shop” regime introduced in 2018.

The new rules give regulators the power to impose fines for violations of up to 4 percent of a company’s global revenue or EUR 20 million (roughly Rs. 171 crores), whichever is higher.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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WeChat Ban: US Judge ‘Not Inclined’ to Reverse Decision on App Store Block




By Reuters | Updated: 16 October 2020

A US judge in San Francisco on Thursday said she was “not inclined” to reverse her decision blocking the government from barring Apple and Alphabet’s Google from offering WeChat for download in US app stores.

US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said at a hearing that she did not think a new filing by the Justice Department “changes the outcome” or changes her analysis.

Last month, Beeler issued a preliminary injunction blocking the US Commerce Department order which was set to take effect late on September 20 in a suit brought by WeChat users.

The Justice Department has appealed Beeler’s order to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but no ruling is likely before December.

The Commerce Department order would also bar other US transactions with Tencent’s WeChat, potentially making the app unusable in the United States.

The Justice Department argues Beeler’s order “permits the continued, unfettered use of WeChat, a mobile application that the Executive Branch has determined constitutes a threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

The WeChat users argued the government sought “to implement an unprecedented ban of an entire medium of communication” and then only offered “speculation” of harms “without any evidence or examples involving Americans’ use of WeChat.”

WeChat has an average of 19 million daily active users in the United States, analytics firm Apptopia said. It is popular among Chinese students, Americans living in China and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.

WeChat is an all-in-one mobile app that combines services similar to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Venmo. The app is an essential part of daily life for many in China and boasts more than 1 billion users.

In a similar case, a US appeals court on Wednesday agreed to fast-track a government appeal of a ruling blocking the government from banning new TikTok downloads from US app stores.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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TikTok US Ban: US Court Agrees to Expedite Government Appeal




By Reuters | Updated: 15 October 2020

A US appeals court on Wednesday agreed to fast-track a Justice Department appeal of a ruling blocking the government from banning new TikTok downloads from US app stores.

US District Judge Carl Nichols in Washington issued a preliminary injunction on September 27 that barred the US Commerce Department from ordering Apple and Alphabet’s Google app stores to remove the Chinese-owned short video-sharing app for download by new users.

A US appeals court in Washington said all briefs are due by November 12 with oral arguments to follow. The government’s opening brief is due on Friday.

Nichols plans to hold a November 4 hearing on whether to allow the US government to bar transactions with TikTok that it has warned would effectively ban the app’s use in the United States. Those restrictions are set to take effect on November 12.

On Wednesday, TikTok sought a preliminary injunction to block those restrictions, disclosing that US TikTok users on average send 80 million direct messages and share 46 million videos a day on the app.

The company said the US government has produced “no evidence that the TikTok source code has ever been compromised, shared or used for nefarious purposes; no evidence that the Chinese government has ever obtained access to any TikTok user data, let alone that of US users; and no evidence that TikTok’s recommendation engine systematically biases Chinese (or any other) political interest.”

China’s ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has been under pressure to sell the popular app. The White House contends that TikTok poses national security concerns as personal data collected on 100 million Americans who use the app could be obtained by China’s government. Any deal will need to be reviewed by the US government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), but people briefed on the matter do not expect any final agreement before the election.

Negotiations are underway for Walmart and Oracle to take stakes in a new company, TikTok Global, that would oversee US operations.

Key terms of the deal, including who will have majority ownership, are in dispute.

A federal judge in San Francisco blocked similar restrictions from taking effect that would bar the use of Tencent’s WeChat. A hearing is set for Thursday on the government’s request to immediately implement the ban on the Chinese messaging app.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Five Eyes Alliance, India, Japan Demand ‘Backdoors’ to Access Encrypted Apps




By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 12 October 2020

The Five Eyes intelligence alliance demanded Sunday that tech companies insert “backdoors” in encrypted apps to allow law enforcement agencies the access they say they need to police online criminality.

The top justice officials of the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand said in a statement that the growth of end-to-end encrypted apps that make official oversight impossible, like Signal, Telegram, FaceBook Messenger and WhatsApp, “pose significant challenges to public safety.”

“There is increasing consensus across governments and international institutions that action must be taken,” they said.

“While encryption is vital and privacy and cyber security must be protected, that should not come at the expense of wholly precluding law enforcement, and the tech industry itself, from being able to act against the most serious illegal content and activity online.”

They called on tech companies to “embed the safety of the public in system designs,” providing access to law enforcement “in a readable and usable format.”

It was the strongest call yet for programmers to include “backdoor” access to encrypted communications programs.

India and Japan, which cooperate in intelligence with the Five Eyes group, added their names to the statement.

Law enforcement globally has complained of the difficulty encrypted communications poses to criminal investigations.

But end-to-end encryption also offers protection to all sorts of activities from business to political dissent.

Pro-privacy advocates say encoding the means for law enforcement to access a user’s communications can endanger democracy activists and empower dictatorial governments.

Pressure has built in recent years in the US and Europe to force the makers of encryption apps to provide access to law enforcement.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for privacy on the internet, European countries have moved closer to regulating such apps.

In an article last week, the EFF said that recently leaked European Union documents indicate a plan to introduce anti-encryption laws forcing backdoor access to the European Parliament “within the next year.”

It would be “a drastically invasive step,” EFF said.

The Five Eyes statement says that its proposal would require safeguards and oversight so that authorities cannot take advantage of their access without cause.

They justified the need based on the prevalence of child sexual abuse material on the Internet.

In the United States, most prominent cases in which law enforcement said it was stymied by encrypted devices and communications have been related to violent extremism.

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