SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk takes part in a joint news conference with T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert (not pictured) at the SpaceX Starbase, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S., August 25, 2022.
Adrees Latif | Reuters
Elon Musk has announced big, albeit confusing, plans for Twitter since he took over the social network last month.
Musk wants to vastly increase the revenue the company makes through subscriptions while opening up the site to more “free speech,” which in some cases seems to mean restoring previously banned accounts like the one owned by former president Donald Trump.
But Musk’s plans for Twitter could put it in conflict with two of the biggest tech companies: Apple and Google.
One of the biggest risks to Musk’s vision for “Twitter 2.0” is the possibility that his changes violate Apple or Google’s app rules in a way that slows down the company or even gets its software booted from app stores.
Tensions are already brewing. Musk complained in a tweet just last week about app store fees that Google and Apple charge companies like Twitter.
“App store fees are obviously too high due to the iOS/Android duopoly,” Musk tweeted. “It is a hidden 30% tax on the Internet.” In a follow-up post, he tagged the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, which is reportedly investigating app store rules.
His complaint is over the 15% to 30% cut Apple and Google take from purchases made inside apps, which could eat into the desperately-needed revenue from Musk’s plans for $8 per month from Twitter Blue subscriptions.
Over the weekend, Phil Schiller, the former head Apple marketing executive who still oversees the App Store, apparently deleted his widely-followed Twitter account with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple Inc., speaks at an Apple event at the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park on September 12, 2018 in Cupertino, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
There are signs Twitter has already seen an increase in harmful content since Musk has taken over, putting the company’s apps at risk. In October, shortly after Musk became “chief Twit,” a wave of online trolls and bigots flooded the site with hate speech and racist epithets.
The trolls organized on 4chan, then barreled into Twitter with anti-Black and Jewish epithets. Twitter suspended many of the accounts, according to the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute.
Musk’s plan to offer paid blue verification badges have also led to chaos and accounts impersonating major corporations and figures, which have caused some advertisers to shy away from the social network, in particular, Eli Lilly after a fake verified tweet erroneously said insulin would be provided for free.
The app stores noticed.
“And as I departed the company, the calls from the app review teams had already begun,” former Twitter head of trust and safety Yoel Roth wrote this month in the New York Times.
Twitter and Apple have been partners for years. In 2011, Apple deeply integrated tweets into its iOS operating system. Tweets that function as official company communications are regularly posted under Apple CEO Tim Cook’s account. Apple has advertised new iPhones and its big launch events on Twitter.
But the relationship appears poised to change as Musk moves to generate a larger bulk of income from subscriptions.
Twitter reported $5.08 billion in revenue in 2021. If half of that comes from subscriptions in the future, as Musk has said is the goal, hundreds of millions of dollars would end up going to Apple and Google — a small amount for them, but a potentially massive hit for Twitter.
One of Apple’s main rules is that digital content — game coins, or an avatar’s outfit, or a premium subscription— that’s purchased inside an iPhone app, has to use Apple’s in-app purchasing mechanism, in which Apple bills the user directly. Apple takes 30% of sales, decreasing to 15% after a year for subscriptions, and pays the remainder to the developer.
Companies such as Epic Games, Spotify, and Match Group lobby against Apple and Google’s rules as part of the Coalition for App Fairness. Microsoft and Meta have also filed briefs in court criticizing the system and made public remarks aimed at app stores.
One option for Musk is to take an approach similar to what Spotify has done: Offer a lower $9.99 price on the web, where it doesn’t pay Apple a cut, and then users simply log in to their existing account inside the app. Users subscribing to a Premium subscription inside the iPhone app pay $12.99, effectively covering Apple’s fees.
Or Twitter could go further, like Netflix, which stopped offering subscriptions through Apple entirely in 2018.
Musk could sell Twitter Blue on the company’s website at a cheaper price and tweet to his over 118 million followers that Blue is only available on Twitter.com. It might work and could help cut Apple out of any fees.
But that also means Twitter would have to remove many options for informing users about the subscription inside the app, where they’re most likely to make a purchasing decision. And Apple has detailed rules about what apps can link to when telling users about alternative ways to pay.
As Netflix’s app says: “You can’t sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it’s a hassle.”
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., on Monday, June 4, 2018.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Musk faces the power of Apple and Google and their ability to decline to approve or even pull apps that violate their rules over content moderation and harmful content.
It’s happened before. Apple said in a letter to Congress last year that it had removed over 30,000 apps from its store over objectionable content in 2020.
If app store-related problems strike Twitter, it could be “catastrophic,” according to the former Twitter head of trust and safety Roth. Twitter lists app review as a risk factor in filings with the SEC, he noted.
Apple and Google can remove apps for various reasons, like issues with an app’s security and whether it complies with the platform billing rules. And app reviews can delay release schedules and cause havoc whenever Musk wants to launch new features.
In the past few years, the app stores have started more closely scrutinizing user-generated content that starts shading into violent speech or social networks that lack content moderation.
There’s precedent for a complete ban. Apple and Google banned Parler, a much smaller and conservative-leaning site, in 2020 after posts on the site promoted the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6 and included calls for violence. In Apple’s case, the decision to ban high-profile apps is made by a group called the Executive Review Board, which is led by Schiller — the Apple executive who deleted his Twitter account over the weekend.
Although Apple approved Truth Social, Trump’s social networking app, in February, it took longer for Google Play to approve it. The company told CNBC in August that the social network lacked “effective systems for moderating user-generated content” and therefore violated Google’s Play Store terms of service. Google eventually approved the app in October, saying that apps need to “remove objectionable posts such as those that incite violence.”
Musk reportedly fired many of Twitter’s contact content moderators this month.
Apple and Google have been careful while banning apps like Parler, pointing to specific guideline violations like screenshots of the offending posts, instead of citing broad political reasons or pressure from lawmakers. On a social network as large as Twitter, it’s often possible to find content that hasn’t been flagged yet.
Still, Apple and Google are unlikely to want to wade into a difficult battle over what constitutes harmful information and what doesn’t. That could end up inviting public scrutiny and political debate. It’s possible that app stores simply delay approving new versions instead of threatening to remove apps entirely.
Future features could also irk Apple and Google and prompt a closer look at the platform’s current operations.
Musk has reportedly talked about allowing users to paywall user-generated videos — something that former employees think would lead to the feature being used for adult content, according to the Washington Post.
Apple’s App Store has never allowed pornography, a policy that dates back to the company’s founder, Steve Jobs, and Google also bans apps centered around sexual content.
Anything that isn’t safe for work needs to be hidden by default. Twitter currently allows adult content, which could put it even more directly into reviewer sights.
“Apps with user-generated content or services that end up being used primarily for pornographic content … do not belong on the App Store and may be removed without notice,” Apple’s guidelines say.
But Musk often runs towards battles, not away from them. Now he has to decide whether it’s worth taking on two of the most valuable and powerful companies in Silicon Valley over 30% fees and Twitter’s ability to host edgy tweets.
An Apple representative didn’t respond to a request for comment. A Google representative declined to comment. Twitter didn’t respond to an email and the company no longer has a communications department. Musk didn’t respond to a tweet.
Crypto.com CEO asks investors to overlook red flags from his business past
Kris Marszalek, CEO of Crypto.com, speaking at a 2018 Bloomberg event in Hong Kong, China.
Paul Yeung | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Kris Marszalek wants everyone to know that his company, Crypto.com, is safe and in good hands. His TV appearances and tweets make that clear.
It’s an understandable approach. The crypto markets have been in freefall for much of the year, with high-profile names spiraling into bankruptcy. When FTX failed last month just after founder Sam Bankman-Fried said the crypto exchange’s assets were fine, trust across the industry evaporated.
Marszalek, who has operated out of South Asia for over a decade, subsequently assured clients that their funds belong to them and are readily available, in contrast to FTX, which used client money for all sorts of risky and allegedly fraudulent activities, according to court filings and legal experts.
Bankman-Fried has denied knowing about any fraud. Regardless, FTX clients are now out billions of dollars with bankruptcy proceedings underway.
Crypto.com, one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges, may well be in fine health. After the FTX collapse, the company published its unaudited, partial proof of reserves. The release revealed that nearly 20% of customer funds were in a meme token called shiba inu, an amount eclipsed only by its bitcoin allocation. That percentage has dropped since the initial release to about 15%, according to Nansen Analytics.
Marszalek said in a Nov. 14 livestream on YouTube that the wallet addresses were representative of customer holdings.
On Friday, Crypto.com published an audited proof of reserves, attesting that customer assets were held on a one-to-one basis, meaning that all deposits are 100% backed by Crypto.com‘s reserves. The audit was performed by the Mazars Group, the former accountant for the Trump Organization.
While no evidence has emerged of wrongdoing at Crypto.com, Marszalek’s business history is replete with red flags. Following the collapse of a prior company in 2009, a judge called Marszalek’s testimony unreliable. His business activities before 2016 — the year he founded what would become Crypto.com — involved a multimillion-dollar settlement over claims of defective products, corporate bankruptcy and an e-commerce company that failed shortly after a blowout marketing campaign left sellers unable to access their money.
Court records, public filings and offshore database leaks reveal a businessman who moved from industry to industry, rebooting quickly when a venture would fail. He started in manufacturing, producing data storage products for white label sale, then moved into e-commerce, and finally into crypto.
CNBC reached out to Crypto.com with information on Marszalek’s past and asked for an interview. The company declined to make Marszalek available and sent a statement indicating that there was “never a finding of wrongdoing under Kris’s leadership” at his prior ventures.
After CNBC’s requests, Marszalek published a 16-tweet thread, beginning by telling his followers: “More FUD targeting Crypto.com is coming, this time about a business failure I had very early in my career. I have nothing to hide, and am proud of my battle scars, so here’s the unfiltered story.” FUD is short for fear, uncertainty and doubt and is a popular phrase among crypto executives.
In the tweets, Marszalek described his past personal bankruptcy and the abrupt closure of his e-commerce business as learning experiences, and added that “startups are hard,” and “you will fail over and over again.”
Marszalek founded a manufacturing firm called Starline in 2004, according to his LinkedIn profile. Based in Hong Kong, with a plant in mainland China, Starline built hardware products like solid state drives, hard drives, and USB flash drives. Marzsalek’s LinkedIn page says he grew the business into a 400-person company with $81 million in sales in three years.
There was much more to the story.
Marszalek owned 50% of the company, sharing ownership and control with another Hong-Kong based individual, who partnered with Marszalek in multiple ventures.
In 2009, Marzsalek’s company settled with a client over a faulty shipment of flash drives. The $5 million settlement consisted of a $1 million upfront payment and a $4 million credit note to the client, Dexxon. The negotiations over the settlement began at some point after 2007.
CNBC was unable to locate Marszalek’s business partner.
Court documents don’t show whether Starline made good on either the $1 million “lump sum settlement fee” or the $4 million credit note. Starline was forced into bankruptcy proceedings by the end of 2009, court records from 2013 show.
Over the course of 2008 and 2009, Marszalek and his partner were transferred nearly $3 million in payments from Starline, according to the documents.
Over $1 million was paid out to Marszalek personally in what the court said were “impugned payments.” His partner took home nearly $1.9 million in similar payments.
“It appears that there was a concerted effort to strip the cash from Starline,” Judge Anthony Chan later wrote in a court filing.
By 2009, Starline had collapsed. Marszalek’s representatives told CNBC in a statement that Starline went under because customers failed to pay back credit lines that the company had extended them during the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Starline borrowed that money from Standard Chartered Bank of Hong Kong (SCB).
“The bank then turned to Starline and the co-founders to repay the lines of credit and filed for liquidation of the company,” the statement said.
Starline owed $2.2 million to SCB.
Marszalek said on Twitter that he had personally guaranteed the loans from the bank to Starline. As a result, when the bank forced Starline into liquidation, Marszalek and his partner were forced into bankruptcy as well.
The court found that the $300,000 transfer to Tekram was “in truth a payment” to Marszalek.
Marszalek said the money in the Tekram transfer was repayment of a debt Starline owed to Tekram. The judge described that claim as “inherently incredible.”
“There is no explanation why the repayment had to be channelled through him or why the money was later returned to the debtor,” the judge said.
Bankruptcy didn’t sever the ties between Marszalek and his partner or keep them out of business for long. At the same time Starline was shutting down, the pair set up an offshore holding company called Middle Kingdom Capital.
Middle Kingdom was established in the Cayman Islands, a notorious hub for tax shelters. The connection between Middle Kingdom and Marszalek and his partner, who each held half of the firm, was exposed in the 2017 Paradise Papers leak. The Paradise Papers, along with the Panama Papers, contained documents about a web of offshore holdings in tax havens. They were published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Middle Kingdom was the owner of Buy Together, which in turn owned BeeCrazy, an e-commerce venture that Marszalek had started pursuing. Similar to Groupon, retailers could use BeeCrazy to sell their products at steep discounts. BeeCrazy would process payments, take a commission on goods sold, and distribute funds to the retailers.
Sellers and buyers flocked to the site, drawn in by considerable discounts on everything from spa passes to USB power banks. Buy Together drew attention from an Australian conglomerate called iBuy, which was on the verge of an IPO and pursued an acquisition of BeeCrazy as part of a plan to build out a South Asian e-commerce empire.
Court filings and Australian disclosures show that to seal the deal, Marszalek and his partner had to remain employed by iBuy for three years and clear their individual bankruptcies in Hong Kong court. The partner’s uncle came forward in front of the court to help his nephew and Marszalek clear their names and debts, filings show.
While the judge called the uncle’s involvement “suspicious,” he allowed him to repay the debt. As a result, both Marszalek and his partner’s bankruptcies were annulled. A few months later, in October 2013, BeeCrazy was purchased by iBuy for $21 million in cash and stock, according to S&P Capital IQ.
A month and a half after buying BeeCrazy, iBuy went public. Marszalek was required to remain until 2016.
The company struggled after its IPO as competition picked up from bigger players like Alibaba. Marszalek was eventually promoted to CEO of iBuy in August 2014, according to filings with Australian regulators.
Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images
After the sudden shuttering of Ensogo, sellers on the site told the South China Morning Press that they never received proceeds from items they’d already delivered as part of a final blowout sale.
“[Many] sellers had already sold their goods but had yet to receive any money from the platform at that time, their money thus vanished altogether with the online shopping platform,” according to translated testimony from a representative for a group of sellers before Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
One seller told Hong Kong’s The Standard that she lost more than $25,000 in the process.
“It seems to us that they wanted to make huge business from us one last time before they closed down,” the seller told the publication.
Marszalek’s representative acknowledged to CNBC that “the shutdown angered many customers and consumers” and said that was “one of the reasons Kris was opposed to the decision.”
Marszalek moved quickly on to his next thing. The same month he resigned from Ensogo, Foris Limited was incorporated, marking Marszalek’s entry into the crypto market.
Foris’ first foray into crypto was with Monaco, an early exchange.
With a leadership team composed entirely of former Ensogo employees, Monaco told prospective investors they could expect three million customers and $169 million in revenue within five years.
Monaco rebranded as Crypto.com in 2018.
The exterior of Crypto.com Arena on January 26, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Fury | Getty Images
By 2021, the company had smashed its own goals, crossing the 10 million user mark. Revenue for the year topped $1.2 billion, according to the Financial Times. That’s when crypto was soaring, with bitcoin climbing from about $7,300 at the beginning of 2020 to a peak of over $68,000 in November of 2021.
The company inked a deal with Matt Damon for a Super Bowl commercial and spent a reported $700 million to put its name on the arena that’s home to the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s also a sponsor of the World Cup in Qatar.
The market’s plunge in 2022 has been disastrous for all the major players and goes well beyond the FTX collapse and the numerous hedge funds and lenders that have liquidated. Coinbase’s stock price is down 84%, and the company laid off 18% of its staff. Kraken recently cut 30% of its workforce.
Crypto.com has laid off hundreds of employees in recent months, according to multiple reports. Questions percolated about the company in November after revelations that the prior month Crypto.com had sent more than 80% of its ether holdings, or about $400 million worth of the cryptocurrency, to Gate.io, another crypto exchange. The company only admitted the mistake after the transaction was exposed thanks to public blockchain data. Crypto.com said the funds were recovered.
Marszalek went on CNBC on Nov. 15, following the FTX failure, to try and reassure customers and the public that the company has plenty of money, that it doesn’t use leverage and that withdrawal demands had normalized after spiking.
Still, the market cap for Cronos, Crypto.com’s native token, has shrunk from over $3 billion on Nov. 8 to a little over $1.6 billion today, reflecting a loss of confidence among a key group of investors. During the crypto mania at this time last year, Cronos was worth over $22 billion.
Cronos has stabilized of late, hovering around six cents for the last three weeks. Bitcoin prices have been flat for about four weeks.
Marszalek’s narrative is that he’s learned from past mistakes and that “early failures made me who I am today,” he wrote in his tweet thread.
He’s asking customers to believe him.
“I’m proud of my scar tissue and the way I persevered in the face of adversity,” he tweeted. “Failure taught me humility, how to not overextend, and how to plan for the worst.”
Getaround stock crashes after carsharing company goes public in SPAC deal
Paul Chinn | San Francisco Chronicle | Getty Images
Carsharing company Getaround made its public market debut Friday through a merger with blank-check company InterPrivate II Acquisition Corp. The company saw its share value drop more than 65%, reflecting the chilly environment for both SPACs and ridesharing companies.
Getaround, which made the very first CNBC Disruptor 50 list in 2013, allows users to rent cars and trucks from each other via a digital marketplace. The company launched in 2009 and is available in more than 1,000 cities in the United States and Europe.
The merger had valued the company at about $1.2 billion, and Getaround said it planned to use the funds to invest in new markets and expand its products.
SPACs, or special purpose acquisition companies, raise capital through an IPO to acquire or merge with existing companies, aiming to eventually take the companies public in a two-year time frame. Though SPACs rose in popularity in 2020 and 2021, they tend to significantly underperform in comparison to traditional IPOs.
The appetite for SPACs, which often back early-stage growth companies with little earnings, have diminished in the face of rising rates as well as elevated market volatility. For SPACs that did go public, they haven’t fared well: the CNBC SPAC Post Deal Index has fallen over 60% in the past year.
Public ridesharing companies have been struggling as well. Lyft shares plummeted in November after the company reported worse-than-expected revenue and a slowing active user count, and the business announced the same month that it would be laying off 13% of its workforce.
Uber reported a third-quarter net loss of $1.2 billion in its third quarter, but the company has seen its stock price rise over the last month after beating analyst estimates and issuing strong fourth-quarter guidance. Still, Uber’s stock is down more than 38% year-to-date even as the company has cited booming travel, easing lockdowns and shifts in consumer spending, and it shares remains well below their 2019 IPO price of $45.
Elliot Kroo, CTO and co-founder of Getaround, told CNBC in May that recent increases in car prices led many people to use carsharing services as well as Uber and Lyft.
“What’s happening in transportation is a slow moving kind of shift from ownership to access, and that’s building momentum over time,” he said. “More and more people are looking at alternative transportation options, realizing that car ownership is very expensive.”
However, prices for both new and used cars have dropped from record highs, also putting pressure on online car dealer Carvana, which is reportedly facing bankruptcy risk or in the least a sharp rise in concerns among its creditors about the financial outlook.
Getaround had raised approximately $600 million in funding. Its financing, like many start-ups over the past decade, grew quickly, from a series C round in 2017 of $45 million to a series D in 2018 of $300 million, led by Softbank, a deal Toyota also took part in.
Amid the pandemic, when the company said its usage fell more than 75%, it raised $140 million from Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus investment arm Reinvent Capital, among other new investors.
In 2019, it spent $300 million to acquire Drivy, a carsharing platform in Europe.
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These two new Google Chrome features will help save battery life and speed up computer performance
The logo of Google Chrome shown on a smartphone.
Thomas Trutschel | Photothek via Getty Images
I currently have 47 tabs open on Google Chrome. If you’re like me, you’ll want to hear about a new update.
Over the next few weeks, Google is rolling out two Chrome performance settings to save memory and battery power. The update will be available for Windows, macOS and ChromeOS desktop users with the release of Chrome 108.
Here’s what’s coming and how to make sure you download the updates.
Energy saver mode on Google Chrome.
If you’re on a laptop and your battery level reaches 20%, Chrome will go into Energy Saver mode, which will prolong battery life. It will do this by limiting background activity and visual effects for websites that have complicated visuals, like animations and videos.
When the update is live, you’ll see a leaf icon on the top right hand corner of your browser that will allow you to activate Energy Saver mode. When your battery life hits that 20% threshold, Energy Saver mode will turn on automatically.
Memory saver mode on Google Chrome.
Google is also rolling out Memory Saver mode. This is for people who have a lot of tabs open at the same time. When Memory Saver mode is on, it prioritizes the tabs you’re actually using. Chrome will free up memory from the tabs you aren’t currently using, but the inactive tabs will reload for you when you need them.
Google says the new feature means Chrome will use up to 30% less memory to make for a smoother or faster browsing experience. When it’s in use, you’ll see an icon on the upper right hand corner of Chrome indicating how much space Memory Saver has freed up.
The new update will be available globally over the next few weeks. To make sure you’re on the most up-to-date version of Chrome, follow these steps.
- Open Chrome on your desktop.
- On the top right, click the three-dot icon.
- Go to Help > About Google Chrome.
- Click Update Google Chrome. If you can’t find this button, it means you’re already on the latest version.
- Once you’ve updated, relaunch the Chrome browser.
- In Settings, you should see a new Performance sidebar menu with these two new features.
You’re all set.
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