Facebook's political ad transparency tools roll out worldwide

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Facebook’s efforts to improve transparency in political ads are now a truly global affair. The social site has made its transparency tools available to advertisers worldwide, letting them post political and issue ads so long as they’re authorized. The disclosure policies remain the same — if someone else paid for an ad, you should see a “paid for by” disclaimer. The ads themselves will sit in an Ad Library archive for seven years alongside data like the view count and demographics.

Accordingly, Facebook is expanding access to its Ad Library framework so that journalists, regulators and others can investigate ads.

You should also see more “proactive” responses to ads in some parts of the world. As of now, Facebook is using a mix of automation and human inspection to detect issue and political ads in Argentina, Canada, Singapore and the Ukraine. Enforcement in Argentina and Singapore will start in the “next few months.” There will also be an Ad Library Report that will help investigators track aggregate ad spending in those countries.

As before, Facebook is hoping that the transparency measures will help catch attempts to meddle with elections and otherwise stoke tensions. However, there are concerns that it could still be rough around the edges. Facebook has unwittingly blocked innocent ads aimed at some demographics, while Mozilla has blasted Facebook for browser add-on policies that reportedly limit ad transparency campaigns. You could see these issues multiply on a global scale. Still, this should remove some of the mystery behind political ads and discourage ‘casual’ attempts to interfere with elections.

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Facebook’s searchable political ads archive is now global

Facebook has announced it’s rolled out a basic layer of political ads transparency globally, more than a year after launching the publicly searchable ads archive in the US.

It is also expanding what it dubs “proactive enforcement” on political ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching — starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina.

“Beginning today, we will systematically detect and review ads in Ukraine and Canada through a combination of automated and human review,” it writes in a blog post setting out the latest developments. “In Singapore and Argentina, we will begin enforcement within the next few months. We also plan to roll out the Ad Library Report in both of those countries after enforcement is in place.

“The Ad Library Report will allow you to track and download aggregate spend data across advertisers and regions.”

Facebook is still not enforcing identity checks on political advertisers in the vast majority of markets where it operates. Nor indeed monitoring whether political advertisers have included ‘paid for’ disclaimer labels — leaving the burden of policing how its ads platform is being used (and potentially misused) to concerned citizens, civic society and journalists.

The social network behemoth currently requires advertisers to get authorized and add disclaimers to political and issue-related ads in around 50 countries and territories — with around 140 other markets where it’s not enforcing identity checks or disclaimers.

“For all other countries included in today’s announcement, we will not be proactively detecting or reactively reviewing possible social issue, electoral or political ads at this time,” it confirms, before adding: “However, we strongly encourage advertisers in those countries to authorize and add the proper disclaimers, especially in a rapidly evolving regulatory landscape.”

“In all cases, it will be up to the advertiser to comply with any applicable electoral or advertising laws and regulations in the countries they want to run ads in. If we are made aware of an ad that is in violation of a law, we will act quickly to remove it. With these tools, regulators are now better positioned to consider how to protect elections with sensible regulations, which they are uniquely suited to do,” Facebook continues.

“In countries where we are not yet detecting or reviewing these types of ads, these tools provide their constituents with more information about who’s influencing their vote — and we suggest voters and local regulators hold these elected officials and influential groups accountable as well.”

In a related development it says it’s expanded access to its Ad Library API globally.

It also claims to have made improvements to the tool, which launched in March — but quickly attracted criticism from the research community for lacking basics like ad targeting criteria and engagement metrics making it difficult for outsiders to quantify how Facebook’s platform is being used to influence elections.

A review of the API by Mozilla shortly after it launched slated Facebook for not providing researchers with the necessary data to study how political influence operations play out on its platform — with a group of sixty academics put their name to the open letter saying the API does the opposite of what the company claims.

Facebook does not mention that criticism in today’s blog post. It has also provided little detail of the claimed “improvements” to the API — merely writing: “Since we expanded access in March, we’ve made improvements to our API so people can easily access ads from a given country and analyze specific advertisers. We’re also working on making it easier to programmatically access ad images, videos and recently served ads.”

Commenting on the development, Ashley Boyd, VP of the Mozilla Foundation, told TechCrunch: “It is outrageous that Facebook would further deploy a tool that’s been found deficient and defective by independent researchers. In fact, the version of the tool released earlier this year for the EU elections earned a ‘failing’ grade by Mozilla, when it failed to meet three out of five of the requirements developed by researchers.

“This rollout may serve Facebook’s PR purposes, but we have no reason to believe it will help researchers and political leaders seeking to understand the scope and impact of misinformation on our democracy.”

The other key election interference concern linked to Facebook’s platforms — and which the company also avoids mention of here — is how non-advertising content can be seeded and spread on its networks in a bid to influence political opinion.

In recent years Facebook has announced various discoveries of inauthentic behavior and/or fake accounts. Though it is under no regulatory obligations to disclose everything it finds, or indeed to find every fake.

Hence political ads are just the tip of the disinformation iceberg.

This report was updated with comment from the Mozilla Foundation 

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Razer goes big on payments with Visa prepaid card

The latest pairing between a tech upstart and a financial titan is a digital prepaid card targeted at Southeast Asia’s 430 million-plus unbanked and underserved population.

On Monday, Razer, the Singapore-based company best known for its gaming laptops and peripherals, announced a partnership with Visa to develop a Visa prepaid solution. The service, which allows unbanked users to top up and cash out easily, will be available as a mini program embedded in Razer Pay, the gaming company’s mobile payments app. That means Razer’s 60 million registered users will be able to pay at any of the 54 million merchant locations around the world that take Visa.

Going virtual is the natural step given the region’s fast-growing digital population, but the pair does not rule out the possibility to introduce a physical prepaid card down the road, Razer’s chief strategy officer Li Meng Lee told TechCrunch over a phone interview.

Both parties have something to gain from this marriage. Hong Kong-listed Razer has in recent years been doubling down on fintech to prove it’s more than a hardware company. Payment services seem like an inevitable development for Razer whose users in the region are accustomed to buying in-game credits at convenience stores.

“For many years, the people who have been making digital payments before it became a sexy word in the last couple of years… [many of them] are the gamers who go to a 7-Eleven, pay in cash, and get a pin code to buy virtual skins for the games,” noted Lee. “Because of that, we’ve been able to build up more than a million service points across Southeast Asia.”

The key differentiator of Razer’s prepaid service, Lee said, is that customers paying at Visa merchants don’t have to already own a bank account, whereas that prerequisite is common for many other e-wallet services.

The Razer Pay app is handling transactions for a slew of internet services like Lazada and Grab and has made a big offline push, boasting a network of more than one million touchpoints through retailers including 7-Eleven and Starbucks where it’s accepted.

All in all, Razer claimed it processed over $1.4 billion in payment value last year — but that includes its “merchant services” business, covering on and offline payments, as well as Razer Pay.

The payment app first launched in Malaysia in mid-2018 and recently branched into Singapore as its second market. Lee said the service plans to roll out in the rest of Southeast Asia soon, upon which the Visa prepaid mini app will also be available in those markets.

For Visa, the tie-up with an internet firm could be a potential boost to its reach in the mobile-first Southeast Asia where some 213 million millennials and youths live.

“This is a great opportunity for us to be working with Razer in addressing how we work to bring the unbanked and underserved population into the financial system,” Chris Clark, Visa’s regional president for the Asia Pacific, told TechCrunch. “We will be doing some work with Razer on financial literacy and financial planning to bring that education to the population across the region.”

Razer’s fintech ambition has been evident since it announced to gobble up MOL, a company that offers online and offline payments in Southeast Asia, in April 2018. Besides payments, Lee said other microfinance services such as lending and insurance are also on the cards as part of an effort to ramp up user stickiness for Razer’s fintech arm.

Note: The original version of this article has been updated to correct that Razer’s $1.4 billion in GMV includes merchant services as well as Razer Pay.

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Binance begins to restrict US users ahead of regulatory-compliant exchange launch

The world’s largest crypto exchange is going legit. Binance, which processes over $1 billion on a daily basis and for so long has embodied crypto’s wild west culture, announced that it will launch a U.S-based service — but, in the meantime, it is implementing restrictions for U.S. passport holders worldwide and those based in the country.

The company has grown to become one of the biggest names in crypto by allowing anyone to use its service to trade a myriad of tokens, many of which are unavailable or limited on other exchanges. But over the past year, Binance has matured and begin to offer more formalized services. Following fiat currency exchange launches in the UK, Uganda and Singapore, so Binance is opening a dedicated U.S. exchange to avoid uncertainty around its legality.

This week, Binance announced it is pairing up with BAM Trading Services — which Coindesk notes is FinCEN registered and has links to Koi Compliance, which counts Binance as an investor — to launch a U.S. exchange “soon.” That will mean, however a level of disruption for some U.S. customers in the meantime.

Chiefly, Binance will no longer permit U.S. passport holders to sign up its global Binance.com service. That’s according to the company’s updated terms and conditions — “Binance is unable to provide services to any U.S. person” — which were confirmed to TechCrunch by a spokesperson.

Existing users have a grace period of 90 days after which they will be unable to deposit funds to the site or make trades. Binance declined to state whether those bans will be administered by a geo-block on U.S. IP addresses, but it did confirm that U.S. customers will retain access to funds held in the service.

That 90-day period ends September 12, so that’s effectively the deadline for Binance to launch its new U.S. exchange if it is to avoid impacting its American user base.

The reality is that the situation is more nuanced.

U.S-based users could continue to use the service by browsing the site with a VPN. Binance allows its users to sign up for a limited account without KYC — i.e. providing verification documents like a passport copy — which allows trading but limits withdrawals to 2 Bitcoin per day. That won’t satisfy more professional traders — most of whom you’d imagine would already have an account on Binance by now — but it does leave a loophole for others.

Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao insisted that the long-term pay-off will be worth any compromise.

It’s certainly fascinating to watch Binance, which has historically been one of the most aggressive crypto companies, transition into a more regulatory-compliant business. At the same time, those who have been cautious, such as Coinbase, are beginning to add new assets.

In addition to the fiat ramp exchanges, Binance has launched a decentralized exchange and it is adding much-requested features such as margin trading. The company also took an investment from Singapore’s Vertex Ventures, one of a number of sovereign funds in the country, to develop its Binance Singapore service.

It hasn’t been plain sailing — the firm lost $40 million and briefly paused trading last month following a “large scale” hack.

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Korean hotel platform Yanolja raises $180M at a valuation of over $1B

The travel tech industry has got another unicorn. Following the likes of Airbnb, OYO, Traveloka and Klook, Korea’s Yanolja said today it has closed a $180 million Series D round that takes it valuation beyond $1 billion.

The investment is led by GIC, a Singapore sovereign wealth fund, and Booking Holdings, the U.S. firm behind travel services such as Booking.com, Agoda.com and more. The company had previously raised around $60 million, according to Crunchbase data. In 2017, Bloomberg reported that its valuation was over $500 million.

Yanolja is best known for reinventing the concept of love hotels in Korea — turning them from seedy places into attractive short-term rental options for young people and travelers. Founded by a former hotel worker, Lee Su-jin, it started out as an advertising platform for love hotels before adding its own app-based booking service.

Today it claims more than 200 hotels in Korea and it has expanded overseas. Last year, it struck a deal to invest $15 million into Zen Rooms, a Rocket Internet-backed budget hotel network, in what could eventually become an acquisition. Now, it is spreading its wings through a partnership with Agoda, the hotel booking platform owned by Booking.

Yanolja stepped into Southeast Asia last year after it invested $15 million into Zenrooms

There are certainly parallels between Yanolja and OYO, the India company that has reformed unorganized small hotels by introducing minimum standards and a network effect for businesses. OYO has won the backing of SoftBank’s Vision Fund, raising $1 billion last year, while Airbnb is also an investor.

Flushed with cash, the Indian company has expanded into China, where it claims to be the country’s second-largest hotel chain, Southeast Asia and, most recently, Europe through the $415 million acquisition of Leisure Group from Axel Springer.

Like OYO, Yanolja is counting on going overseas to develop its business.

“We are very keen to go global,” CEO Kim Jong-yoon told Reuters in an interview following the new financing.

Going public is also a priority. Bloomberg reported back in 2017 that the wheels were in motion, but things have taken longer. Kim told Reuters that 2022 is the rough timeframe for an IPO, presumably, that means the company will give its international expansion plan to chance to run first.

Still, its growth certainly shows potential.

Yanolja said that its revenue has grown an annual rate of over 70% over the past five years. Reuters added that revenue last year reached 188.5 billion KRW ($160 million) — that’s nearly double the previous year but the company is not profitable yet.

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