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TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at tips@techcrunch.com or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

Source: TechCrunch
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Airbnb Imagines a ‘Stakeholder’ World

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Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s co-founder and C.E.O., spoke exclusively to Andrew last night about the company’s announcement today that it will think about all “stakeholders” when it comes to corporate governance, not just investors.

The move is Mr. Chesky’s take on the Business Roundtable’s recommendations last year that companies consider employees, the environment and more in their business decisions.

• Airbnb is planning to hold a “Stakeholder Day.” It would be like a traditional annual shareholder meeting — except that everyone from customers to “hosts” to employees and others will be invited.

• It will also change its compensation program, with factors important to stakeholders like progress on guest safety taken into account when bonuses are calculated.

“I don’t want to be one of those C.E.O.s to say we’re trying to do all this great stuff, but then we treat board meetings exactly like every other board meeting,” Mr. Chesky told Andrew. He added that he doesn’t think this is particularly radical: “I think this is where the world is going.”

The big picture:

• Airbnb remains under fire on a number of fronts, including battles with regulators over housing laws, concerns over the safety of its customers and claims of discrimination by hosts. They’re among the struggles that surround the company’s plans to go public this year.

• It’s unclear whether investors, as one of many groups of stakeholders, will embrace their diminished stature within Airbnb’s universe.

• And it remains to be seen whether the new goals will increase the company’s valuation in its market debut.

The tech giant unveiled a response to climate change yesterday that goes beyond offsetting carbon emissions. It wants to erase its entire historical carbon footprint by 2050, a target that no other major company has set before.

What the plan involves:

• Becoming “carbon negative” by 2030, which means not only ending the emission of carbon into the atmosphere, but also removing it.

• Creating a Climate Innovation Fund that will invest $1 billion over the next four years into developing carbon-removal technology, which currently isn’t commercially viable.

It goes further than other environmental pledges by Fortune 500 companies. Amazon said last year that it aimed to be carbon neutral by 2040. And PepsiCo announced this week that it wanted to cut its carbon emissions by 20 percent over the next decade. Climate activists hope that such moves will spur other corporations to think just as big.

But there’s reason to be skeptical of Microsoft’s pledge. Sue Reid of the environmental nonprofit group Ceres told Reuters that the economics of carbon removal remained murky: “That math is all facing some new uncertainty and vulnerabilities tied to exacerbated climate change impact,” such as more wildfires, she said.

Expect this to be a huge topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week. Andrew will be on the ground to give you the inside scoop.

Apollo Global Management is one of Wall Street’s biggest private equity firms, managing over $320 billion in assets. Apollo’s success is due in large part to the strategies of its founder, Leon Black, who gets his close-up in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek cover story.

“Black’s aggressive approach — involving layoffs and slashing benefits — is also among the most profitable,” Caleb Melby and Heather Perlberg of Businessweek write. “Apollo’s flagship private equity fund, which it opened to investors in 2001, has delivered annual returns of 44 percent.”

Highlights from Mr. Black’s career include:

• Working with Mike Milken on junk bonds, a term Mr. Black still hates because competitors came up with it: “We were never accepted by the Goldmans and the Morgans and the Kidder Peabodys and the First Bostons.”

• Investing where others wouldn’t dare. “Everybody else is running for the doors, and we’re backing up the trucks,” Mr. Black told Businessweek.

But his biggest problem right now might be his association with Jeffrey Epstein:

• The depths of Mr. Black’s financial ties to the late financier are unknown, but he is known to have given $10 million to Mr. Epstein’s charity and persuaded the financier to invest in a friend’s muffler company.

• “After Epstein was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell a month later, former Apollo employees joked darkly that his death had made Black’s life easier.”

President Trump ribbed a top JPMorgan Chase executive this week when he said her bank should thank him for its stellar earnings. He may have had a point, at least when it comes to his tax cuts, writes Yalman Onaran of Bloomberg.

• Savings for America’s top six banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — from the 2017 tax overhaul have now surpassed $32 billion.

• The banks “posted earnings this week showing they saved $18 billion in 2019, more than the prior year, as their average effective tax rate fell to 18 percent from 20 percent,” Mr. Onaran writes.

• “The six firms posted $120 billion in net income for 2019, inching past 2018’s mark. They had never surpassed $100 billion before the tax cuts.”

The parent company of the search giant Google hit $1 trillion in market value yesterday, the fourth tech company to do so. But Alphabet faces challenges to stay at that level:

Regulation. Dai Wakabayashi of the NYT notes that “it faces investigations from Congress, state attorneys general and the Department of Justice,” as well as pressure from other regulators around the world.

New leadership. Alphabet’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have taken a step back, leaving the company in the hands of Sundar Pichai, who has been criticized as lacking vision.

Shareholder sentiment. Investors are “debating whether the largest internet stocks have gotten too pricey,” Amrith Ramkumar of the WSJ writes.

And here’s why it could keep climbing, Mr. Wakabayashi points out: “Google search is the on-ramp to much of the internet.”

Chris Young is stepping down as the chief of the cybersecurity company McAfee to become a senior adviser to TPG, the investment firm. He will be replaced by Peter Leav of BMC Software.

George Cheeks, the vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios, reportedly resigned to take a senior role at CBS.

James Debney stepped down as the C.E.O. of the parent company of the gun maker Smith & Wesson after the board discovered what it said was nonfinancial misconduct.

Deals

• The Gap called off plans to spin off its most successful division, Old Navy, and investors cheered. (CNN)

• Ant Financial, the corporate sibling of the Alibaba Group of China, is reportedly working with banks to revive its I.P.O. plans. (FT)

• M.&A. advisory fees for five of Wall Street’s top banks dropped 5 percent last year, or $558 million. (FT)

Politics and policy

• President Trump said he would formally nominate Judy Shelton, a longtime critic of the Fed, to the central bank’s board of governors. (NYT)

• How the U.S.-China trade deal could change the way international disputes are settled. (WSJ)

• The Senate approved the revised North American trade deal known as U.S.M.C.A. by a vote of 89 to 10. (WSJ)

• Several Democratic lawmakers said that JPMorgan Chase had not provided enough detail about its efforts to improve diversity and to address complaints about discrimination. (NYT)

Tech

• Facebook has reportedly called off plans to sell ads in WhatsApp, at least for now. (WSJ)

• Fiat Chrysler is teaming up with Foxconn to develop electric vehicles. (TechCrunch)

• Pinterest has surpassed Snapchat as the third-most popular social network in the U.S., a new study found. (Search Engine Journal)

• Do you really need a smart toilet? (WSJ)

Best of the rest

• Employees at Barneys are angry that the fashion retailer, now in liquidation, fell short of $4 million in severance payout obligations. (NYT)

• The German authorities raided the homes and offices of three people suspected of spying for China. (NYT)

• Brace yourself: Here comes Build-a-Bear’s Baby Yoda. (Business Insider)

We’d love your feedback. Please email thoughts and suggestions to business@nytimes.com.

Source:

NYT > Business > DealBook


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Airbnb’s New Year’s Eve guest volume shows its falling growth rate

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

It’s finally 2020, the year that should bring us a direct listing from home-sharing giant Airbnb, a technology company valued at tens of billions of dollars. The company’s flotation will be a key event in this coming year’s technology exit market. Expect the NYSE and Nasdaq to compete for the listing, bankers to queue to take part, and endless media coverage.

Given that that’s ahead, we’re going to take periodic looks at Airbnb as we tick closer to its eventual public market debut. And that means that this morning we’re looking back through time to see how fast the company has grown by using a quirky data point.

Airbnb releases a regular tally of its expected “guest stays” for New Year’s Eve each year, including 2019. We can therefore look back in time, tracking how quickly (or not) Airbnb’s New Year Eve guest tally has risen. This exercise will provide a loose, but fun proxy for the company’s growth as a whole.

The numbers

Before we look into the figures themselves, keep in mind that we are looking at a guest figure which is at best a proxy for revenue. We don’t know the revenue mix of the guest stays, for example, meaning that Airbnb could have seen a 10% drop in per-guest revenue this New Year’s Eve — even with more guest stays — and we’d have no idea.

So, the cliche about grains of salt and taking, please.

But as more guests tends to mean more rentals which points towards more revenue, the New Year’s Eve figures are useful as we work to understand how quickly Airbnb is growing now compared to how fast it grew in the past. The faster the company is expanding today, the more it’s worth. And given recent news that the company has ditched profitability in favor of boosting its sales and marketing spend (leading to sharp, regular deficits in its quarterly results), how fast Airbnb can grow through higher spend is a key question for the highly-backed, San Francisco-based private company.

Here’s the tally of guest stays in Airbnb’s during New Years Eve (data via CNBC, Jon Erlichman, Airbnb), and their resulting year-over-year growth rates:

  • 2009: 1,400
  • 2010: 6,000 (+329%)
  • 2011: 3,1000 (+417%)
  • 2012: 108,000 (248%)
  • 2013: 250,000 (+131%)
  • 2014: 540,000 (+116%)
  • 2015: 1,100,000 (+104%)
  • 2016: 2,000,000 (+82%)
  • 2017: 3,000,000 (+50%)
  • 2018: 3,700,000 (+23%)
  • 2019: 4,500,000 (+22%)

In chart form, that looks like this:

Let’s talk about a few things that stand out. First is that the company’s growth rate managed to stay over 100% for as long as it did. In case you’re a SaaS fan, what Airbnb pulled off in its early years (again, using this fun proxy for revenue growth) was far better than a triple-triple-double-double-double.

Next, the company’s growth rate in percentage terms has slowed dramatically, including in 2019. At the same time the firm managed to re-accelerate its gross guest growth in 2019. In numerical terms, Airbnb added 1,000,000 New Year’s Eve guest stays in 2017, 700,000 in 2018, and 800,000 in 2019. So 2019’s gross adds was not a record, but it was a better result than its year-ago tally.

Source: TechCrunch
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In the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle startups are having a moment

Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.

San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.

In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.

Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.

Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.

Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global,  Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.

Up-and-coming startups, including co-working space provider The Riveter, real estate business Modus and same-day delivery service Dolly, have recently attracted investment too.

A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.

There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017

Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.

“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”

Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.

Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.

Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.

Source: TechCrunch
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