Instagram’s co-founders introduce a new social app…for news reading • TechCrunch


Can lightning strike twice? That’s apparently the question being raised today with the public introduction of the next social app built by Instagram’s co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. The duo launched a new venture to explore social apps, according to a report published in The Verge, which includes the debut product Artifact, a personalized news reader.

The app itself is not yet publicly available but offers a waitlist where interested users can sign up. As described, it sounds like a modern-day twist on Google Reader, a long-ago RSS newsreader app that Google shut down back in 2013. Except in this case, Artifact is described as a newsreader that uses machine learning to personalize the experience for the end user, while also adding social elements that allow users to discuss articles they come across with friends. (To be fair, Google Reader had a similar feature, but the app itself had to be programmed by the user who would add RSS feeds directly.)

Artifact will first present a curated selection of news stories, The Verge’s article notes, but these will become more attuned to the user’s interests over time. Some of the articles will come from big-name publishers, like The New York Times, while others may be from smaller sites. Other features include separate feeds for articles posted by people you follow alongside their commentary and a direct message inbox for discussing posts more privately.

The concept seems as if it has some overlap with one of Twitter’s bigger use cases around discussing news. It also arrives at a time when Twitter users are considering new options after the app’s acquisition by Elon Musk, who has chaotically made numerous and sometimes controversial changes to the app’s roadmap and policies, alienating some longtime users in the process.

But as described, Artifact doesn’t sound completely original either — not only does it seem like a modern twist on a Google Reader-type experience, it would go up against various other news reading apps, both new and older, which include personalization elements, like Flipboard, SmartNews and Newsbreak. It also sounds similar to the Pocket competitor Matter, which offers a combination of news reading, curated recommendations and comments. Even Substack has capitalized on Twitter’s destabilization, launching a way for its readers and writers to chat in-app. That means no matter how polished or differentiated Artifact may become, it could still face a host of competition in the market, where consumers also already have built-in news apps available with Apple News and Google News.

Of course, the new app would also compete in many ways with the social giant Meta, which Instgram’s founders left back in 2018. Facebook and to a lesser extent, Instagram and WhatsApp, today serve as portals where billions interact and engage with news and information, amid their updates from friends, family, groups, and businesses they follow.

According to The Verge’s report, the duo believes the recent leaps made in machine-learning technology could help give Artifact an edge, however, similar to how algorithmic recommendations have played a role in elevating TikTok to become a dominant app.

But while TikTok’s personalized For You feed is arguably addictive, the video app’s growth was seeded by record-breaking marketing spend on its user acquisition efforts — even reaching $1 billion per year in 2018, The WSJ had reported. A startup, even from remarkable founders, may not have the same fuel to throw on the fire. And news reading in and of itself seems to be a bit of a passé market to chase in an era when younger Gen Z users are often now turning to entertainment apps like TikTok to stay informed on news and world events, too.

That said, it’s difficult to count out the success of those who built Instagram, which was one of the largest social tech acquisitions of its time and has shaped the way the world engages with social media.

As an early-stage product, Artifact is still being developed and is not yet monetized, but a revenue share with publishers was mentioned as a possible option. (Where have we heard that one before?)

The app’s individual success may or may not ultimately matter, though given the founders intend on testing other new social products through their new venture, it seems.


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Big changes coming for GDPR enforcement on Big Tech in Europe? • TechCrunch


Big Tech take note: In what looks like a meaningful — and long overdue — reforming step, the European Commission has committed to dial up its monitoring of how data protection authorities at the EU Member State level enforce the bloc’s flagship data protection rules — committing to regular checks on “large scale” General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) cases.

Checks that could help address long standing criticism that enforcement of the GDPR is too weak and plodding to put meaningful checks on Big Tech.

The EU’s executive has responded to its ombudsman saying it will ask all national supervisory data protection authorities to share with it a report — on a “bi-monthly” basis (presumably that’s every two months, rather than 2x per month in this context); so 6x per year — which it describes as “an overview of large-scale cross-border investigations under the GDPR”.

Furthermore, the Commission stipulates these reports will need to include various key details (such as case no.; controller or processor involved; investigation type), along with a summary of the investigation scope (“including which provisions of the GDPR are at issue”); the DPAs concerned; “key procedural steps taken and dates”; and the “Investigatory or any other measures taken and dates.

It has also committed, in its second upcoming report on the application of the GDPR, to provide a report of the information it’s getting back from DPAs. So the Commission will be reporting on the DPAs’ reporting.

While this probably sounds exceedingly dry, it’s actually — potentially — a very big deal.

Thing is, major cross-border GDPR cases have languished for years in regulatory limbo. Such as complaints against Big Adtech business models and behavioral advertising, or over adtech giant Google’s almost impossible to avoid location-tracking, to name two.

There’s also a very long-running complaint that’s called for the suspension of Facebook’s data exports which still hasn’t landed as a final decision. While Apple, Twitter and TikTok all have open GDPR cases pending decisions — in some instances years after an enquiry was opened on paper.

EU privacy campaigners and legal experts have for years argued that — on paper — the GDPR should be protecting consumers from unwanted tracking and profile. Yet they’ve also pointed out these self-same rules are being systematically flouted by tech giants that think they’re big enough to ignore the rules.

The upshot is EU citizens’ rights are steamrollered under the market muscle of major tech platforms and their associated ecosystems of operators — which critics contend extends to regulatory capture of ‘friendly’ DPAs. Especially in certain Member States where there’s a concentration of big tech firms (such as Ireland). Hence the call for closer monitoring of how (or even whether) Member State level authorities are doing the job of enforcing GDPR.

Just today, for example, an EU report on digital advertising and privacy concludes there’s “a need to increase individuals’ control over how their personal data is used for digital advertising, including how they avoid unwanted targeting” — which points to a gap between EU regulations that it too emphasizes “should” be protecting consumers from such abuse — yet, very evidently, they aren’t.

The issue here is simple: It’s who’s watching the watchmen, argues Dr Johnny Ryan — a senior fellow at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) — the rights group which complained to the European ombudsman over the Commission’s monitoring of Ireland’s implementation of the GDPR.

The Commission has treaty obligations to monitor Member States’ implementation of pan-EU laws but has often seemed reluctant to wade into the fray. And it’s this reluctance to crack an eyelid over plodding DPAs the ICCL challenged via the ombudsman back in November 2021.

That complaint has now led to agreement from the Commission that it will improve how it’s keeping tabs on GDPR enforcement more generally (so not just keep specials tabs on Ireland). And led to what looks to be, per the above list, a solid basis for overseeing DPAs administration of their duties — and at least putting the EU’s executive in a position to identify inconsistencies or other investigatory shenanigans.

(Whether the Commission will act robustly on reports that will be confidential is another matter; but at least it won’t be able to pretend problems don’t exist — and it also knows that its watchman, the ombudsman, is on its case with eyelids open.)

In a press release today, the ICCL lauds the development — dubbing the Commission move a Europe-wide “overhaul” of the GDPR.

“The European Commission’s new commitment should transform Europe’s data and digital enforcement,” argues Ryan in a statement. “Previously, big cases lay dormant for years. Now, we should see acceleration in investigation and enforcement, and it will be clear where the European Commission needs to take swift action against Member States that fail to apply the GDPR. This heralds the beginning of true enforcement of the GDPR, and of serious European enforcement against Big Tech,

“I think it makes the GDPR real,” Ryan also told TechCrunch — adding that if the Commission’s changes also apply retrospectively, i.e. to the large existing slate of Big Tech cases, that’ll be “even better”.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) typically attracts the most criticism over its approach to GDPR. Not only for how much time it may take on an enquiry but whether it even actually investigates the issue being complained about.

One oft complained about tactic is for the regulator to follow up a complaint (or complaints) by opening up what it refers to an “own volition enquiry” — which allows it to set the terms of reference. And, critics contend, to narrow the scope and/or entirely avoid the crux of a complaint. Creative reframing of enquiries is the ‘straw man’ of regulatory (in)action — deflecting and rerouting the claimed scrutiny in a way that can sidestep the core issue and ensure any damage to the target business is kept to a minimum. In short, it’s a mockery of genuine oversight.

A recent example is a decision against WhatsApp by the DPC — some 4.5 years after a series of complaints were raised over the legal basis Facebook-owner Meta claims to run behavioral advertising across a number of its services.

The Irish regulator ended up being instructed by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to find a series of breaches of the GDPR — some of which it alone had declined to find in its preliminary decision on the complaint back in 2021– but in one of its final decisions, against WhatsApp, the DPC was accused by the complainants of not investigating a core element of its complaint: i.e. whether WhatsApp processes users’ metadata for ad targeting (and, if so, whether it has a valid legal basis for doing that).

The DPC did not investigate that issue and also ignored a follow-on instruction by the EDPB to investigate it — claiming the Board was overreaching its jurisdiction. It also said it would challenge that component of the Board’s instruction in court. So instead of robustly investigating the legality of Meta’s ad-targeting — which had been raised by complaints dating all the way back to May 2018 — the DPC simply chose not to look — doing so at the end of a very long enquiry process where it also had the opportunity to investigate and didn’t. (And that’s just one instance of scores of complaints about its ’round-the-houses’ approach to ‘enforcing’ GDPR.)

Over that same set of complaints, the Irish regulator was also accused of further letting Meta massively off the hook — by not fining it the maximum amount possible for failing to have a valid legal basis for its core behavioral ads business.

The days of regulatory dither and ‘creative inaction’ by EU Member States which may feel they have a political interest in not annoying Big Tech companies headquartered on their soil may — finally — be numbered if the Commission starts to do a proper (i.e. active) job of overseeing DPAs’ GDPR enforcement.

The Commission should care about this. And not just because of its core duty to uphold EU treaties — but also because the GDPR is a cornerstone of a far wider and more ambitious digital regulatory program it’s been setting out in recent years; laying out wide-ranging rules for data governance and data reuse with the aim of accelerating regional innovation in artificial intelligence.

So if the GDPR is shown to not be working that risks bringing the whole carefully constructed EU digital edifice crumbling down — and at a time when the Commission is taking on a major new oversight role for larger platforms and tech giants (via the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act).

Which means the EU’s executive has plenty of very good reasons to d something about the problem of failed GDPR enforcement. Far better than any superficial PR wins it may want to accrue by claiming GDPR enforcement is working just fine.

Still, some question marks over this reforming step remain.

As well as the question of whether the Commission’s changes to how it will monitor GDPR enforcement will apply retrospectively (or not), there’s a more basic question of when exactly this new world order will be implemented? For now, that’s not clear.

EU citizens have already spent years waiting to see action on GDPR complaints — having to watch tech giants continuing to enrich themselves at the expense of their rights in the meanwhile. So there really is no time to lose for the Commission to locate a higher gear here. However when we asked it when it will be implementing the changes — and whether they will be retrospective or not — a Commission spokeswoman declined comment.

There is also a question over how exactly the Commission will define “large scale” in this context — and whether or not its reporting requirements will capture all cross-border GDPR cases, or just a subset.

Furthermore, there could be some wiggle room for regulators to reach non-public agreements with tech giants, i.e. as another route to cynically closing GDPR cases down (and end any reporting requirements in the process).

But given all the criticism over (and attention on) lax GDPR enforcement already, DPAs surely can’t hope to try their luck with a fresh repackaging of inaction — not unless they are actually extracting meaningful reforms in an agreed resolution with a company targeted for complaints. (And, well, if they’re achieving the latter no one would need to complain!)

The EU’s ombudsman reached its decision on the ICCL complaint in December — after a year long enquiry.

In an eight-page decision on whether the Commission collects sufficient information to monitor Ireland’s implementation of the GDPR, Dr Emily O’Reilly wrote that “EU citizens are entitled to expect that the European Commission collects sufficient information to monitor the application of that legislation”.

She went on to welcome the fact she found the Commission reportedly receiving “bi-monthly” reports from the DPC on the handling of “big tech” cases but suggested there was room for more improvement — such as maintaining a table of “pre-determined fields” containing key details and key steps taken, as the Commission has now committed it will.

If it were not to apply this “specific targeted monitoring measure”, the Ombudsman concluded she “would have had serious doubts as to the adequacy of the information that the European Commission relies on”. So, again, there’s not going to be any way back from this formalized monitoring process for the Commission — a standard is being set and required.

In a separate GDPR enforcement related development the Commission mentioned in its work program last year, it has also said it will be presenting a proposal to improve cooperation between data protection authorities on cross-border GDPR cases — so further changes are afoot which may help tackle delays kicked up by disputes between DPAs who fail to agreed on how to enforce against tech giants.

Again, there’s no concrete timings attached to this development — beyond a pledge from the Commission to come with a proposal this year. (But it would then need the other EU institutions to weigh in and agree any changes.)

Never one to waste a PR opportunity, in a joint speech this week, the EU’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, and justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, pitched the move as the Commission wanting to “further strengthen the enforcement of the GDPR”, as they spun it — writing that, working together with the EDPB, they’ve “started looking into ways to further enhance cooperation in cross-border cases”, and “will present a proposal this year to further harmonise relevant procedures for DPAs”.


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Spotify’s third-party billing option has now reached over 140 global markets • TechCrunch


In its fourth-quarter earnings, Spotify announced today its User Choice Billing program has now expanded to over 140 markets worldwide, allowing the streaming music service to reduce the commissions it pays to Google over Play Store purchases associated with its Android app. The User Choice Billing pilot program gives Android users the option to pay an app developer directly. It had been introduced last spring, with Spotify planned as an initial tester. But neither company had shared an update on the program’s progress until this past November when they announced Spotify would then begin to roll out its tests in select markets.

At the time, Spotify said the program would become available in only a few markets to start and would roll later out to others in the “coming weeks.” It did not share which markets would see the third-party billing option or when it expected the choice to reach its global Android app user base.

Today, the company confirmed it’s made solid progress on the program’s deployment. As part of its earnings announcement, where the company also beat on user growth targets with 205 million paid subscribers, it shared that its November deployment of User Choice Billing had then become available to users in “10+ markets.” Over the past several months, Spotify said it’s expanded the option to now over 140 markets around the world.

However, Spotify has not yet published a detailed list of countries where the program is offered but told TechCrunch it anticipates implementing the option in “every market” where it offers Spotify Premium today and where Google Play Billing is available. Currently, Spotify Premium subscribers can be found across 184 global markets, according to the company’s website.

Image Credits: Spotify

It’s not surprising that Google picked Spotify as a debut tester of its new billing offering, given the streaming music service has long been a fierce app store critic, sharing its complaints over the required commissions with the U.S. Department of Justice and E.U. regulators. If an outspoken voice like Spotify could be placated by a reduced commission on in-app purchases, Google hopes it could mitigate concerns over its alleged abuses of market power now being investigated.

In March, Google introduced the third-party billing option to Android app developers, as looming threats of antitrust litigation and increased regulation grew nearer. Already, the tech giant had been forced to support alternative billing systems in South Korea, with the passing of a new law, and was being sued by top app makers, including Fortnite’s Epic Games, over antitrust issues. However, the User Choice Billing option didn’t offer much in the way of savings for app developers, as Google only reduced the required commissions on app purchases and in-app payments by 4%.

This past November, Google said it was opening up the User Choice Billing pilot further to new markets, including the U.S., Brazil, and South Africa, and invited other developers to participate. Dating app Bumble then joined Spotify as one of the early adopters.

Developers who participate in the program have to follow certain UX guidelines Google sets which detail how to implement the feature in their apps. These guidelines currently require developers to display an information screen and a separate billing choice screen. The information screen only has to be shown to each user the first time they initiate a purchase, but the billing choice screen must be shown before every purchase.

While the general terms offer a 4% reduction on the commissions paid to Google when third-party billing is used, Spotify wouldn’t comment on its confidential deal with Google, only noting it meets the company’s “standards of fairness.” It’s unclear if the streamer has been offered more favorable terms as an early tester.

Spotify’s agreement with Google could potentially provide a boost in subscription revenues at a time when the streamer is facing an increased push from investors to increase its margins and make the service profitable. As Spotify chased investments in areas like ad tech, podcasts, audiobooks, and more over prior years, its losses widened last year leading its market cap to decline by over 60%.  In a note published to Spotify’s website this month, as the company announced layoffs impacting 600 people, CEO Daniel Ek admitted the situation was the result of being “too ambitious in investing ahead of our revenue growth.” 

The company’s solid progress on user growth in the fourth quarter saw its shares pop after announcing results earlier this morning. In addition to its 205 million paid subscribers, up 14% year-over-year, it also announced total users were up 20% year-over-year to 489 million. Revenue came in at €3.17 billion, just ahead of estimates of €3.16 billion, but Spotify’s loss per share was 1.40 euros ($1.52), larger than the expected loss of 1.27 euros.


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Stripperweb, a twenty-year-old forum for sex workers, is shutting down. No one knows why. • TechCrunch


There are some people on the internet who don’t want to be found. That seems to be the case for the elusive, mysterious owner of Stripperweb, a twenty-year-old forum for exotic dancers and sex workers. With just one week of advance notice, the forum’s unknown owner announced that the website will shut down on February 1, erasing the decades-long digital footprint of a community on the margins.

“This place was a digital dressing room where I could listen in on thousands of interesting, profane, disgusting, inspirational, challenging and painfully true experiences,” said a forum moderator, who uses the screen name Optimist, in an email to TechCrunch. “I didn’t feel alone and isolated anymore. This was a digital home that accepts us all, no matter [how] broke, busted, or disgusted.”

The news of Stripperweb’s closure broke last week with a simple notice posted to the top of the website, which is decorated in innumerable different shades of pink.

“For over 20 years, Stripperweb has been one of the best resources for exotic dancers and webcam models on the internet. We’ve made the difficult decision to close Stripperweb effective February 1st. We urge you all to check out AmberCutie’s Forum as a possible new home after we close. Thank you to everyone who has made this such an amazing community.”

Longtime members and moderators acted quickly, driven by a slew of unanswered questions. Who posted the message? Why now? And why choose a seemingly random forum as a refuge?

Taja Ethereal, a Stripperweb moderator who uses the screen name PhatGirlDynomite!!!, took action immediately and offered to buy the site outright.

“The first offer was $12,000… I’m losing my head right now. He wouldn’t even come to the table for $12,000, to be paid out in 24 hours, in cash,” she said. “Even if this person is wealthy, why would you leave money on the table unless the site has already been purchased?”

Taja Ethereal said she knows that the owner saw her offer – but she still doesn’t know who the owner is, or if the site was already sold. None of the moderators know, even those like her and Optimist who have been on the site for decades, putting in years of labor to educate newer dancers about staying safe and getting paid.

Time is ticking. Some sex workers have swiftly taught themselves the Python programming language, writing scripts to scrape decades of data from Stripperweb for posterity. Others are diving deep into the earliest history of the forums, searching for clues as to who might hold the key to the most comprehensive, collaborative archive of what life is like for sex workers in the twenty-first century.

A Stripperweb member named cutiecam, who has been on the forum for over seven years, explained it succinctly: “This is a literal digital museum.” Another user, neverendingkneebruises, wrote on the forum, “I think almost every single dancer [came] across this website when they were starting, no joke… This site helped me get into the industry with standards and boundaries!”

Yet even in the face of five-figure cash offers and intense sleuthing, the owner of Stripperweb and their motivations remain a mystery.

‘Losing our communal memory’

For those in the know, the cultural value of Stripperweb’s poppy, retro pages has been obvious since its infancy. Now a criminology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Dr. Lisa Monchalin wrote a master’s thesis about Stripperweb in 2006, analyzing conversations from the forums to investigate the motivations of professional strippers. While sex work is often assumed to be a financial last resort, the conversations on Stripperweb proved otherwise, according to Monchalin’s study.

Stripperweb is an appealing source for academic research, since it provides such an unfiltered, honest look into a historically stigmatized profession. For the dancers who found each other on the forum, it’s also one of the only places they can talk openly about the challenges, victories and nuances of their daily lives. Despite the forum’s name, Stripperweb evolved to include a spectrum of different types of sex work, including camming, acting in porn clips and operating phone sex hotlines.

“Losing Stripperweb is losing our communal memory,” Marla Cruz told TechCrunch. Cruz is a dancer who turned to the forums for guidance when she entered the industry in 2017. “You could mention Stripperweb in any dressing room, and dancers would chime in about their experiences on the forum, or what they learned from the forum. It was that ubiquitous, that everybody kind of knew what it was, but for some of them, it was like, ‘Stripperweb is the Holy Grail of strippers’ knowledge. It’s my Bible.’”

The early lore of Stripperweb’s founding has already been lost to the detritus of the internet. But in that 17-year-old master’s thesis, Monachlin inadvertently preserved a now-forgotten relic of the early forum, which explains how and why the site was founded.

The story of Stripperweb begins in 2001. Pryce, a college student who programmed websites as a side gig, heard from his dancer friends that they couldn’t find a good, central community online.

“One day […] Pryce mentioned creating a better site – one that was positive, full of quality advice, and one that gave exotic dancers new tools to help them do their job better and make more money,” reads the origin story reprinted in Monchalin’s thesis.

Sure enough, a user who goes simply by “Pryce” served as the admin of the forums for many years. A WHOIS domain lookup reveals that the website is owned by someone who uses the email, but that address – as well as every other Stripperweb email address – is no longer active.

In a post commemorating the ten-year anniversary of Stripperweb in 2012, Pryce echoes the founding story captured in Monchalin’s thesis.

“StripperWeb first opened to the public on January 4th, 2002. Things have certainly changed since then,” Pryce wrote. “I was just a college kid trying to figure out what the Internet could be used for. At the same time, a group of exotic dancers were in need of a virtual hang out to call home. After 6 months and a LOT of late nights, we had a whopping 74 members! That was incredible in those days. Fast forward 10 years, thanks to the growth of the Internet, social media, and all of you posting – we now get 30-50 new members DAILY.”

Pryce wrote that a man named Wayne, “an experienced consultant with access to quality resources,” would lead a team of developers and administrators who would take over his role. Members also recall an admin named Bob managing the forums after Pryce’s departure.

Pryce, Wayne and Bob did not respond to requests for comment, sent via email and Stripperweb’s direct messaging system.

As the forum approaches its final days, one section of that ten-year-old post sticks out. Pryce offers thanks to someone he calls “The Other Owner,” in quotes.

“Thank you so much for your support over the past 6 years. You offered to carry most of our financial burden at a critical time,” Pryce wrote. “Since then, no matter what, you have stayed true to your words and continued to help significantly. I respect the loyalty you have shown. Additionally, at times when the site needed extra funds to complete hardware upgrades or software updates, again you contributed. I thank you on behalf of the community.”

That ten-year commemorative post was Pryce’s last on the forum; his profile shows that he has not logged in since 2013. Taja Ethereal said she believes that this “other owner” is still in control of the site.

Optimist remembers this time on Stripperweb as “a long, strange tale.” These days, the forum is overwhelmingly dominated by conversations among actual sex workers. But according to Optimist, the forum used to have a robust, bright blue counterpart to the pastel pink pages where so many dancers have found refuge.

“The site used to be twice the size it is now because there was a blue board to match the pink board,” she told TechCrunch. “The idea was that the customers had their own area, and we had our area.”

Some men on “the blue side” simply exchanged tales of their experiences in clubs; others tried to arrange meetups with the dancers, who then asked Pryce to close off certain areas of the forum for privacy reasons. But Optimist says he refused.

In some threads from the blue board — which still exist, mostly inactive, in the deep recesses of Stripperweb — men discuss whether or not it’s okay to track down girls from the forums at their clubs. Others debate whether getting a dancer’s number means she’s romantically interested, or if she just wants to text you to come in on a slow night. On other forums, the men compare notes about their “free” sex lives. Taja Ethereal still refers to male customers who intrude on Stripperweb conversations as “blues.”

Optimist added, “[Pryce] claimed it was a stripper support site that he and his stripper girlfriend created for the community. But we had no control over it or [means of] protecting ourselves beyond using avatars and fake names.”

The “pinks” and “blues” as seen on Stripperweb, documented on January 30, 2023

‘COVID is like this generation of strippers’ 2008’

A lot changed over the years on Stripperweb. When the forum first opened in 2002, Internet Explorer held 95% of the market share for web browsers, Mark Zuckerberg was an unknown high schooler, YouTube didn’t exist and the top-selling cell phone was the Nokia 6610, which could only hold 75 text messages.

The sex industry itself has changed a lot too.

“There used to be a lot of money in stripping,” Optimist said. “Average girls were walking into good regional clubs and walking out with at least $1,000 per shift on average. So we had women putting their ‘vanilla’ careers aside to make two to four thousand dollars a week.”

When the 2008 recession hit, the industry was sent into a tailspin. Though Cruz was not in the industry at the time, she learned about the economic impact on strip clubs from old Stripperweb forums, as well as elder dancers from work.

“The site has been running since the early aughts, and what’s interesting is that if you actually look through the years, you can kind of see the ebbs and flows of engagement,” Cruz said. “You see these two really big breaks in 2008 for the recession, and then 2020 under COVID.”

In the midst of the 2008 downturn, Page Six wrote of a “lap deficit” and declared that “Wall Street’s financial crisis has trickled down to Manhattan’s mammary meccas.” In other words, fewer big spenders could pay for lap dances.

“I worked at a club where there were a handful of 40- to 50-year-old dancers who had been dancing for 20 years,” Cruz said. When COVID hit in 2020, the older dancers reflected on their past experiences with a sudden economic shift. “COVID is like this generation of strippers’ 2008. It was a big bomb that went off and decimated everything, and all the dancers were kind of like, left in this wake to fend for themselves.”

As strip clubs closed down for the pandemic, some dancers took their talents online, working as livesteaming camgirls or as creators on adult clip sites. Naturally, the pandemic generated a boom in online sex work. The platform OnlyFans became a household name, bringing in $375 million in 2020, then $1.2 billion in 2021. The company has only continued to grow.

Cruz theorized that Stripperweb’s closure could be linked to the changing state of the industry, but there are a number of possible explanations, including the increasingly suffocating legislative changes to online sex work.

In 2018, former President Donald Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) into law after it received bipartisan support in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The legislation overrides Section 230, the statute that renders social platforms immune to liability for what users post – under FOSTA, social platforms can be indicted for enabling illegal sex work.

Laws like FOSTA are positioned as ways to curb sex trafficking, but in practice, the policy has been shown to have made sex work less safe. In 2020, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed a study on the secondary effects of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers.

“Sex workers have reported a reduced ability to screen potential clients for safety, and negotiate for boundaries such as condom use, resulting in reports of physical and sexual violence,” the bill says. “Many sex workers have turned to street-based work, which has historically involved higher rates of violence than other forms of transactional sex.”

To comply with the law, many credit card processors have cracked down on adult payments, even for legal online sex work.

“Liability is not just about whether or not something’s legal or illegal,” Cruz told TechCrunch. “If you’re a legal sex worker – if you do OnlyFans, or if you’re a stripper – and you have an account with Bank of America, for example, Bank of America can decide to shut down your account. You’re at high risk because you’re associated with adult services.”

Cruz thinks that whoever owns Stripperweb might have chosen to shut it down due to potential liability concerns under FOSTA, but the timing seems strange, since the law has been in effect for over four years.

“It could be something to do with FOSTA, like the hammer’s coming down,” said Taja Ethereal. “Every time you turn around, something’s becoming more difficult to do, like people losing their payment processors. We tried to be legit with adult payment processors – they are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.” She added that one company she works with recently got banned from using Wells Fargo.

“It seems like the noose is getting tighter and tighter.”

‘This site is the most support they’ve ever had’

From advice for dealing with antagonistic customers, to guidance on how to navigate changing legislation, Stripperweb has continually served as a resource for workers in the adult industry. While some community leaders try to hunt down the owner of the forum to negotiate, others have resigned to the possibility of losing the forums forever. In the final days before the February 1 deadline, some denizens of Stripperweb have worked tirelessly to preserve its twenty years of forums as an everlasting archive, writing their own programs and leveraging tools from the Internet Archive to salvage as much of their history as possible.

Taja Ethereal set up two computers to run for twelve hours at a time, scraping as much data from Stripperweb as possible. She’s not the only one.

“A lot of people are archiving it, and then I have other people who I have hooked up with from Twitter. They’re sending these .zip files,” she told TechCrunch. “So basically, it looks like I’m gonna end up with two hard drives filled with files.”

Within days, much of the website was uploaded to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, though it’s not a complete copy of the site. Once all of the data is retrieved, another Herculean task awaits: organizing twenty years of unwieldy, retro internet forums.

Many of these conversations are merely historical relics – one thread about stripper safety from the early 2000s recommends that dancers invest in a cell phone – yet some advice from the forums is timeless.

“The most chilling thing about the site being destroyed instead of sold to a loving supportive group of industry women, is that for some newbie cammers and dancers, that site is the most support they’ve ever had,” Optimist said. “They literally come on to chat like we’re sisters or like elder family members.”

When the site shuts down, there won’t be a central place for forum members to go. The site’s vague notice about the shutdown offers a forum operated by a sex worker named AmberCutie as an alternative, but Stripperweb users seem unenthused, since her forum focuses specifically on camming, rather than other trades like dancing. It’s not clear why the site now points people toward that particular forum, but some users say it reflects how out of touch the owner is with what the community needs. AmberCutie did not respond to a request for comment.

Taja Ethereal wonders if the repository of advice on Stripperweb is exactly what led to its downfall. Dancers share tips on which clubs to avoid, what they should expect to be paid and how they know if they’re getting ripped off. She describes the website like an unofficial union. Last year, dancers at Star Garden in North Hollywood went on strike for eight months before receiving approval from the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election to join the Actors’ Equity union. If they win their vote, they would become the first unionized strip club since 2013, when the Lusty Lady club in San Francisco closed.

Taja Ethereal says she became suspicious when she and other moderators wanted to upgrade sections of Stripperweb where dancers compare notes about which clubs are safe to work at, but their requests were denied or ignored.

“Why wouldn’t you want a resource so people can find out what’s a good club, what’s a bad club?” she said. “Other people have said that maybe that’s because strip club owners don’t want us talking about their clubs.”

As the community prepares for Stripperweb to close, the members of the forum are looking for a place to go – Taja Ethereal started a website called Cammodelweb, almost an homage to the forum she’s spent more than a decade moderating. As the mysterious, unknown owner lets the forum disappear, its members lament the loss of an accessible place for new sex workers to learn how to stay safe and take care of themselves.

“Right now, there are women living in precarious situations who need help getting hired, getting their hustle down before they end up homeless. Girls fly into a city on a ‘Strip Trip’ and need to know what to do,” Optimist said. “They’ll look up on Wednesday and 20 years of aunties who left their best advice will be gone.”


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Bitcoin-based app Strike expands in Philippines to grow cross-border payment solutions • TechCrunch


Strike, a Bitcoin-based payment network and financial app, is expanding to the Philippines to grow cross-border payments and remittance markets.

“The Philippines is one of the biggest remitting markets in the world, especially from the United States,” Jack Mallers, CEO of Strike, said to TechCrunch. In 2021, about $12.7 billion in cash remittances was sent from U.S.-based Filipinos to the Philippines, according to Statista data.

“As far as the technology we build, it’s one of the lowest-hanging fruits — international payments are a huge pain and always have been. There’s been incremental innovation from SWIFT and Western Union, but it’s still incredibly difficult.”

Even across Western countries, traditional cross-border money transfers services are slower as bank transfers can take multiple days for funds to move from one account to another.

Strike uses instantaneous, low-cost micropayments through the Lightning Network, a layer-2 payment protocol on top of Bitcoin, which allows millions to billions of transactions per second to transpire across the platform. The app’s platform also allows users to transfer U.S. dollars to local fiat currencies, like the Philippine peso, for less than 1 cent per transaction, Mallers noted.

“None of our users have to touch Bitcoin,” Mallers said. The app uses Bitcoin to transfer money from one user’s account to another, regardless of its price. “The aspiration of the business is to hide Bitcoin under the hood” so users could benefit from its payment network, he added.

For example, if a customer wants to take $5 and send it to a country like the Philippines, the Bitcoin is converted over the Lightning Network and reconverted into the local currency “in the order of seconds to minutes as opposed to days or weeks,” Mallers said.

Aside from the Philippines, Strike plans on expanding further in the Latin American and African regions as well due to the “extreme amount of demand,” Mallers shared. “We’re seeing partners pop up all over the world.”

Now, Strike is gaining demand and partners seeking out integrations from everywhere between the U.K. and throughout Europe all the way to “20 new countries we’ll potentially add in February in Africa,” Mallers added.

Earlier this month, Strike partnered with payments provider Fiserv, the parent company of Clover (the fancy white digital register at many small businesses today), to expand its services.

Last year, it raised $80 million in a Series B round to drive its efforts to grow payment solutions for merchants, marketplaces and financial institutions, the company said. Strike also joined forces with Visa in August 2022 to launch a rewards card that pairs with its application.

In general, the company’s partnerships and announcement point to its focus on growing the remittance market through its application and other alternative avenues, like Clover.

“The goal is to make cross-border payments and global payments cheaper and faster,” Mallers said. “But also more accessible. There’s huge value here for financial inclusion.”

Some Strike users will send amounts as little as 10 cents to their families, Mallers shared. But through a traditional financial system, the fees would outweigh the benefits, he added. “We can process a 10-cent payment…and you don’t have to log into Chase for an international wire transfer.”

Going forward, there are opportunities to improve the existing remittance markets while also unlocking new markets, he added. “You’ll start to see a renaissance of tools really closing that big delta gap and you’ll start seeing more financial institutions like Square and CashApp take advantage of this.”

Over the next decade, Mallers thinks remittance networks and applications like Lightning and Strike will expand opportunities from the 2 billion to 3 billion people that are “generally included in the global international payments system” to all 8 billion.

“That’ll be like a renaissance moment,” Mallers said. “It’s a really huge deal.”


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Brazilian online grocery deliverer Diferente secures $3M to increase customers’ access to healthier food • TechCrunch


When you live very far away from a grocery store, we’re talking like an hour and may include catching several buses or a rideshare, it can be difficult to make the weekly trip in. Enter Diferente, which touts itself as “the largest subscription foodtech for fresh organic produce in Brazil.”

Former James Delivery founder Eduardo Petrelli teamed up with Saulo Marti and Paulo Monçores to launch Diferente in early 2022 with a mission of making healthy foods accessible and to cut down on the 30% of the imperfect produce typically thrown away by grocery stores.

To do this, the company sources directly from organic farmers and is able to offer prices that are 40% lower than what you would find in the grocery store. Customers choose weekly or bi-monthly delivery slots and Diferente’s proprietary algorithm predicts the ideal basket of fruits, vegetables and leaves, with customers being able to customize the amounts.

The algorithm takes into account their preferences and the availability, seasonality and recurrence of the item and tailors future boxes accordingly. There is also some intelligence built in for the farmers to help plan their crops based on what’s popular with customers.

“Brazilians are extremely price sensitive when they buy groceries, so if you charge anything more than the normal price, they are going to buy in the offline module,” Petrelli told TechCrunch.

He noted that Diferente is able to gain traction with a low cost of customer acquisition because moe than 80% of Brazilian families cook at home versus the United States, where that is just less than 40%.

“Clients here like very fresh foods and need them on a weekly basis,” Petrelli added. “That’s part of why we think that we have the unique business model for Latin America.”

However, the company isn’t taking the instant delivery approach that competitors like JOKR are doing. Instead, it is focusing on Brazil’s density and recognizing that families are more spread outside of the big cities, which enables Diferente to go after other kinds of customers that will order larger carts on a weekly basis.

That approach seems to be working. Petrelli said Diferente, operating in 12 cities within the State of São Paulo, is already profitable per order. In addition, co-founder Saulo Marti said in the past 10 months, average order volume increased from 13.8% to 17.2%, and customers on average are ordering two boxes per month at a rate of $15 per box.

Not only do those figures point to good margins and good retention, but the ability for Diferente to expand in a more efficient way, Petrelli said. Since launching in 2022, the company has grown seven times in revenue and is starting off 2023 with a “positive contribution margin,” as Petrelli expects to end 2024 with more than $30 million in revenue. It has also “rescued” 300,000 kilograms of food already.

Last year, the company raised $4.4 million in seed funding and is adding $3 million more in a round led by Caravela Capital that also included Collaborative Fund and two new funds, South Ventures and Valor Siren Ventures. This gives Diferente $7.4 million in total funding since it was founded.

The new funding will help the company get its app launched, enter new categories and SKUs and get its second phase of artificial intelligence-powered customization underway this year. It will do some hiring to add 20% to 30% more employees this year to work with the current roster of 75 people.

Diferente also has plans to expand its delivery radius. Petrelli estimates there are 50 million potential customers within the company’s current operating area. Meanwhile, the company is offering an average of 50 stock keeping units (SKU) and has up to 170 SKUs available, depending on seasonality, Marti added.

“Sixty-two percent of our customers are middle class and they aren’t being targeted for buying online as much as the higher class, so that is a unique opportunity for us to go to cities where no one is going,” Petrelli said. “We already forecasted 36 cities that we can go around São Paulo, and we are now just planning how many we’re going to acquire.”


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NetApp, a specialist in cloud data management, says it will lay off 8%, or around 960, people, citing economic climate • TechCrunch


NetApp, one of the big players in cloud data management, today announced that it would lay off 8% of its staff, citing “macroeconomic challenges and the reduced spending environment” in the current market. The company is estimated to employ about 12,000 people globally, so this will work out to around 960 people impacted. NetApp said that it would begin the process this quarter and is expected to take a charge of $85 million to $95 million related to that.

We have contacted the company to ask which product lines or types of jobs might be impacted. It looks like the cuts will be in multiple geographies, including EMEA and Asia-Pacific.

San Jose-based NetApp is listed on Nasdaq and has a market cap of just over $14 billion. Like a lot of tech stocks, NetApp has seen its shareprice rollercoaster over the last year and overall drop in value over that time.

Businesses are spending significantly less on IT at the moment, and that has been weighing heavily on tech companies that count them as customers. Companies working in cloud services saw a massive surge in demand during the Covid-19 pandemic — both from the world simply using more digital channels in their work and leisure activities, but also from businesses investing in so-called “digital transformation” and updating systems to work on newer technologies. NetApp itself made a splashy acquisition of for $450 million as part of that push.

But overall, even cloud businesses have not been immune to the more recent downturn, and subsequent drop in demand for their products, too. 

“Companies are facing an increasingly challenging macroeconomic environment, which is driving more conservatism in IT spending. We are not immune to these challenges,” CEO George Kurian wrote in a memo to employees today. “Against this backdrop, we must be agile, deliver on our near-term commitments, while positioning ourselves for long-term success. This means sharpening our strategy to focus on the areas of our business best positioned for growth, adapting our cost structure to reflect focus and market conditions and raising the bar on our performance. Having successfully navigated similar challenges together with you before, I am confident that sharp focus on our strategy and strong execution will enable us to capture the opportunity ahead.”

Indeed, NetApp is not a stranger to layoffs. In 2016, also under Kurian as CEO, the company laid off first 12%, and then a further 6%, of employees within months of each other. This time around, it is part of a bigger wave of reductions across all of tech, covering not just a number of major enterprise vendors, but those in consumer, too.

Other recent layoffs have been announced at Google (12,000), Amazon (18.000), Groupon (5,00), SAP (3,000), IBM (3,900) and more. Counting this recent round at NetApp, there have been over 76,000 layoffs in the technology sector this year alone, according to That’s a massive and very disconcerting rate. All of 2022 had 159,684, but we’re only two months into the year.

NetApp last quarter beat on both earnings and revenues, and set guidance of net revenues in the range of $1.525 billion to $1.675 billion and non-GAPP earnings of $1.25 – $1.35. Let’s see how the company performs in Q3 when it reports on February 22.


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How to cut your SaaS spending by 30% in 2023 • TechCrunch


The current state of affairs paints a concerning picture for SaaS buyers.

Our data shows that the SaaS inflation rate is around four times higher than the general market inflation rate. Specifically, SaaS expenditure in the U.K. and Australia is currently growing at a rate five times higher than market inflation — and in the U.S., a substantial 3.5 times more.

These would be worrying figures in any economy, but for CFOs attempting to drive growth during an economic downturn, soaring software costs should be ringing alarm bells.

One of the reasons that SaaS vendors are able to increase their prices year after year is that so many obscure their pricing information. As a result, buyers lack the insight to negotiate best-in-class deals on their software contracts.

Without a frame of reference on what other companies pay, many are quoted higher rates for enterprise-level software subscriptions. So much so that our data indicates that as many as 90% of companies are overpaying for their SaaS products by 20%-30%.

What can you do?

Vendor pricing is rarely set in stone, and buyers have more purchasing power than they realize when they approach negotiations and are equipped with leverage. When your company reaches out to sales teams to inquire about SaaS solutions, there is often room to negotiate the contract.

Finance and procurement teams need to be aware of the negotiation tactics that can be used to attain SaaS products at a better price and avoid the common pitfalls associated with software negotiation. If you’re looking to cut your software costs in 2023, these are the strategies that are recommended for securing SaaS contracts with long-term value.

If cutting SaaS costs is a top priority for your business in 2023, improving your software negotiation strategy is the place to start.

Give yourself enough time to prepare

The first step in gaining negotiation leverage is to allow yourself time.

Ensure that you approach a vendor to renew or take on a brand new contract far before you plan to onboard with the new product. Before anything else, you’ll need to understand your needs and comprehensively research which tools are best equipped to fulfill them.

To help you on your way, put together a short list of tools and consider:

  • The number of licenses the company requires.
  • The level of support and maintenance needed.
  • The features that you deem essential and those that would be “nice to have.”
  • The budget you are willing to allocate.

This way, you can enter negotiations with the knowledge and time you need to secure the best deal. If you fail to take this time, your supplier could realize that you need a quick turnaround and respond with inflexible terms. Though there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we typically advise that the average company begins the procurement process six to eight months before contract renewal.

Consider your contract length


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Plugable’s new dock turns your tablet or phone into a workstation • TechCrunch


Laptops and tablets are getting better and more powerful by the day but our fingers aren’t getting any more precise, and for extended writing and work, it’s still more helpful to have a keyboard and a larger screen at hand. These types of products have been around for at least a decade, but what’s new about Plugable‘s offering is the sleek portability and build quality that makes your phone and tablet so portable in the first place.

The USB-C docking station is called UDS-7IN1, and enables the users of supported devices to turn their phones and tablets into workstations. The device adds an HDMI port to connect a monitor, alongside a couple of USB 3.0 (5Gbps) ports, SD and microSD ports, an audio input/output jack, and 100W USB-C pass-through charging to keep everything powered and on charge.

The stand is built of aluminum, and folds down to a pretty compact little package to take with you on your travels.

Supported devices are most modern USB-C tablets, and select phones, and the device can be purchased for $69 starting today.


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Google to ban unlicensed loan apps in Kenya as new rules take effect • TechCrunch


Google’s new policy requiring digital lenders in Kenya to submit proof of license to operate in the East African country takes effect today. The policy aims to clamp down on rogue loan apps, which are pervasive in the country.

This means that only providers with licenses from the country’s pinnacle bank, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), will be listed on Play Store, Google’s digital distribution service.

Digital lenders whose applications are yet to get a green light from the CBK, and can produce evidence of the same, will also obtain Google’s interim approval, but it will only be valid for 45 days. Once this period elapses, the unlicensed providers will be required to resubmit the declaration form attesting that the approval from CBK is still pending.

A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch that if the application for license is rejected during the 45 days, interim approval will be immediately rescinded.

Google’s move to curb unregulated loan apps in Kenya, comes in the wake of similar efforts in India, Indonesia, and Philippines, where the providers are also required to have requisite permits from authorities that regulate the financial services sector to be listed on Play Store.

In Nigeria, the loan apps are required to have a “verifiable approval letter” from the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, which last year set rules that require loan apps to declare their fees and demonstrate how they receive feedback and solve complaints, among other requirements.

22 digital credit providers are licensed in Kenya out of 381

Only 22 digital lenders including Tala, a Pay-pal backed loan app; Pezesha, a B2B embedded lending platform, and Jumo, a fintech providing financial services including lending, have so far been licensed, out of the 381 that applied as per CBK’s update yesterday.

Kenya and Nigeria are major tech hubs in Africa, and have witnessed the proliferation of loan apps, offering quick unsecured personal or business loans. However, the lack of stringent regulations, and Google Play Store’s slack vetting process, have enabled the rise of rogue operators, necessitating authorities to take apt measures to protect citizens.

In Kenya, Google’s new policy follows a new regulatory environment that requires digital lenders to avoid the use of threats or debt-shaming tactics, including the posting of personal information on online forums, unauthorized calls and messages to customers, and access to their contact lists for purposes of coercion in case of default.

Loan apps collect borrowers’ phone data, including contacts, and demand access to messages to check the history of mobile money transactions — for credit scoring and as conditions for disbursing loans. Rogue lenders have been sharing some of the contact information with third-party debt collectors without prior consent.

As per Kenyan law, loan apps must reveal their pricing model, and disclose all the terms and charges to customers in advance, and are expected to notify the regulator before introducing new products or making changes to existing ones.
They are further required to disclose their source of funds, and provide evidence of the same, as confirmation that they are not engaging in financial crimes like money laundering.


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