China clamps down on Google services ahead of 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square protests

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, one of the most controversial events in Chinese history. China doesn’t acknowledge the event, and is known for clamping down on the internet in the run up to the June 4 anniversary — this year it appears to have disrupted multiple Google services in the country.

TNW has spoken to China-based users and seen screenshots which show Google Maps, Google’s search engine, Google Translate, Gmail and other services failing to operate in China, in line with a report from GreatFire, an organization that keeps watch of internet censorship in China. GreatFire claims in a blog post that “all Google services” have been disrupted for the past four days, but the issues are more severe today.

Google’s own transparency report suggests that traffic from Google services has been sluggish in the country since June 1, hinting that something is going on behind the scenes. When reached for comment, however, a Google spokesperson told TNW: “We’ve checked extensively and there’s nothing wrong on our end.”

Screenshot 2014 06 02 20.37.50 520x279 China clamps down on Google services ahead of 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square protests

Google relocated its search engine to Hong Kong from China in 2010, following allegations that the government had hacked into Gmail accounts belonging to prominent activists. Yet, despite its absence, Google services are regularly a target for the government.

China clamped down on all Google services in the country ahead of and during the Communist Party of China’s 18th Party Congress in November 2012, while Gmail was blocked in March 2011 following the threat of rallies inspired by protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Tiananmen Square anniversary is a hugely symbolic incident which always draws the attention of Chinese censors. In the run up to the event, restrictions are typically tighter on microblogging services like Weibo, while Foursquare was banned back in 2010 for suspicion around a large number of check-ins at the square itself.

There is some reprieve for internet users in China, since GreatFire is offering a version of Google’s search engine that it believes could withstand China’s censorship might. This version is hosted on Amazon servers — you can find it here – and the organization believes it offers hope for beating the censors.

Screenshot 2014 06 02 21.08.01 730x369 China clamps down on Google services ahead of 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square protests

The idea behind the approach — which the organization calls ‘collateral freedom’ — is that the Chinese government would need to block Amazon’s entire hosting business in order to make the mirrored Google search page unavailable in China. GreatFire believes that the government wouldn’t take such a bold step, and that this approach can help other websites and companies that have gone dark in China become available for internet users once again.

The company says that there are plenty of other hosting services that encrypt their content and could be used to host mirrors. So, were its hosting with Amazon to fail, it could turn elsewhere.

GreatFire believes that its approach could easily be expanded upon by Google, which has access to a range of technologies to avoid Chinese censorship.

“There are steps that Google can take to combat this censorship, which they currently choose not to,” GreatFire wrote in a blog post. “Google can tunnel through other undisrupted Content Delivery Network services to evade the block. Google can also add censorship evading functions through its popular web browser Chrome. At the moment, even the start page of Chrome will not load in China. But Google can tweak Chrome’s code to bypass censorship.”

We expect that Google services will return to relative normality after June 4, though it appears that Google is happier to stay out of proceedings in the lead up to the anniversary this year. We’ll update this post with further details as we’re aware of them.

Image via Digital Paws Inc. / Thinkstock

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Whisper Confirms $36M In New Funding, Adds Related Posts, Categories, And Explore Feature To App

Anonymous social-sharing startup Whisper has confirmed a new round of funding and is launching an updated version of its app that will make it easier for users to connect with others sharing similar thoughts and emotions.

Whisper was one of the first in an emerging category of apps that enable users to share freely and anonymously with each other. But in earlier versions, it could be difficult to find content that would be relevant to you. You could view popular Whispers and Whispers nearby, but that was about it.

The newest version of the app is designed to change that, by highlighting Whispers that are similar in theme to those shared by each user. Each time a user creates a new post, the app shows other Whispers related to that topic, which improves the way in which users find others who share similar thoughts or emotions.

“The whole focus is about giving everybody access to all the Whispers,” CEO Michael Heyward told me by phone. It doesn’t matter what feeling or emotion you have when you post, he said, but the app should be able to help you find someone who has posted something similar.

The app has also added a new search function and now highlights categories of content, both of which will expand the ways in which users can discover Whispers.

Heyward said that about half of all active users actually contribute content, but even if they don’t, the app will now allow them to search or browse categories to find Whispers relevant to them. That functionality now appears front and center on the home page of the app, so that users can easily find content they want to read.

With search, Whisper faced two challenges, according to Heyward: First, it had to tie things together on the back end to make Whispers relevant to one another. Second, the app needed to help users determine what to search for. That’s what categories are all about.

On top of search and categories, the app has also added a new “Explore” tab that enables users to scan a map for things that people share around the world. By doing so, users can now view what others are saying in any given place, based on their locations.

With these updates, the app will provide a more personalized experience. Unlike previous versions, where nearly everyone saw the same global feed, the update is designed to make the content people see more relevant and meaningful to users.

In addition to the latest update to the app, Whisper is confirming a new round of funding. The round, which had been previously reported by Re/code, will add $36 million to the company’s coffers. With the funding, Whisper has raised a total of $60 million altogether since being founded just two years ago.

The new financing round included investment from new investors Tencent, Shasta Ventures, and Thrive Capital, as well as existing investors Lightspeed Ventures and Sequoia.

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Adobe’s Creative Cloud experiences extended worldwide outage

Adobe reports that its Creative Cloud online service, which powers access to some 16 creative applications including Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and their helper resources, is not accessible online anywhere in the world.

Adobe said in a statement:

Adobe login is currently offline, impacting access to some Adobe services. We apologize for the disruption. We have identified the cause and are working to restore the service as quickly as possible. We will share updates on Twitter at @AdobeCare.

The company has been tracking the outage on its Creative Cloud System Status page. The first issues cropped up as early as Wednesday afternoon.

We’ll keep this post updated as Adobe brings the service back online.

Image credit: Ian Usher / Flickr

Google updates Nik analog effects photo plug-in

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Is Adding Live Video Mobli’s Last Throw Of The Photo App Dice?

Mobli, the social-mobile photo and video-sharing app which competes with Instagram and the like, has a major update out today that adds one, single important new feature: live broadcast streaming. The question is, will this be enough to attract the attention of the millions sharing images on Instagram and, now, WhatsApp?

mobli has over-hauled the app to make it faster, improved the UI, the website and is now opening up to 3rd party developers.

However, I put it directly to CEO and founder Moshe Hogeg, that although this might seem like a significant move, the fact is that live streaming from mobiles has not proved as viral as photos, straight recorded videos and, latterly, short Vine-like videos.

Live streaming, to put it bluntly, is unlikely to be the magic bullet to take Mobli out of it’s also-ran status at 15 million active users, into a new stratosphere.

“Standalone live streaming apps like Qik were boring. It’s the combination of being able to post pictures, video AND do live streaming – the integration – that we think users will be attracted to,” he tells me.

However, one can’t but get the feeling that this is a last throw of the dice for Mobli – since no live streaming app has been that successful.

It also faces competition not just from Instagram but WhatsApp which has about 600 million pictures shared a day.

Mobli’s integration of live streaming is going to have to fly in the face of evidence that live broadcasting really just not that interesting enough of a feature – even when it’s been implemented in the YouTube app.

Of course, far be it for me to criticise – let’s see what Mobli’s numbers look like in six months to a year. Maybe I’ll have to eat my leather jacket. But I doubt it.

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Groupon Beats In Q1 With $757.6M In Revenue, Non-GAAP EPS Of -$0.01

After the bell today Groupon reported its first quarter financial performance, including revenue of $757.60 million, and non-GAAP earnings per share of $0.01. Analysts had expected for the company to earn $0.03 per share (non-GAAP) on revenue of $740 million.

On a GAAP basis, Groupon lost $37.8 million, or $0.06 per share. The company’s adjusted EBITDA for the quarter totaled $40.3 million.

In regular trading, Groupon fell under 3% in down day for the market. After reporting its earnings beat, Groupon is up just under 4%. Just kidding, Groupon is now down over 3%. Investors are having a hard time making up their minds at its results.

Today’s earnings come on the heels of its last quarter’s massive post-report swing. Groupon shot north more than 10 percent after reporting better-than-expected results, but an anemic profit forecast for the calendar year sent it down more than 10 percent quickly. It was one of the more impressive whipsaws I’ve ever seen in a public company.

Unit volume in the first quarter was up 85% year-over-year to 84 million, while gross billings totaled $1.82 billion the quarter, up 29% from the year-ago period. The company saw 54% of its deals kick-in from mobile customers.

The company ended the period with cash and equivalents of $1.0 billion.

Speaking simply, Groupon posted revenue growth, billings growth, user growth (+24% yearly actives since year-ago period), and so forth. Groupon has plenty of cash to boot. Still, investors seem somewhat skittish about either its inability to post a real profit for now, or its long-term growth potential. More shortly.

What’s interesting is that Groupon in fact raised its guidance today: “Groupon is increasing its full year outlook, and now expects Adjusted EBITDA to exceed $300 million.” That said, raising a non-GAAP figure is only so impressive. Following its poorly received growth projections detailed in the fourth quarter of 2013, perhaps this was adjustment too little.


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Alignable Is A Social Network For Local Business Owners

With all the handwringing about the future of local business, a startup called Alignable aims to connect those businesses and help them work together.

The company was co-founded by Eric Groves (formerly a senior vice president at Constant Contact) and Venkat Krishnamurphy. Groves, who’s the company’s CEO, said that most local businesses don’t have a way to work with each other or even know what’s going on at stores down the road.

“It’s amazing how local businesses truly feel like they’re alone,” he said.

With Alignable, on the other hand, businesses can connect with each other, send each other messages, and post to a communal news feed for their town. One common use case, Groves said, is to can mutually promote their sales and events through their various Facebook followings and email lists. Another use case is asking for advice, like how to obtain a certain permit.

As an example, Groves showed me the page for Hollister, Calif. the small town where I used to work as a newspaper reporter. There was a fair amount of activity, with a post from the Hollister Downtown Association about an upcoming beer and wine tour at the top of the feed, and many of the businesses having reposted it to their own Facebook Pages.

While the focus is on businesses, Alignable creates consumer-facing directories and events calendars for its communities, too.

Even though the company hasn’t done much marketing or press, Groves said Alignable is now being used by tens of thousands of communities in all 50 states of the US. In many cases, he said the initial interest is driven by downtown associations, main street organizations, and chambers of commerce. (However, he noted that the community pages aren’t controlled by any one entity — anyone can post what they want.)

Alignable has raised $3 million in funding led by Saturn Partners (an early Constant Contact investor), with participation from NextView, LF-VC, Boston Seed, Longworth Partners, and CrunchFund. (Like TechCrunch, CrunchFund was co-founded by Michael Arrington. Also, Arrington was sitting a few yards away from me as I wrote a lot of this post.)

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You’re More Than Your Last Few Tweets

Our lives are not defined reverse chronologically, yet until now, that’s strictly how our social network profiles portrayed us — as a snapshot of our latest activity. Today, Twitter gave us all a redesigned web profile with the option to pin a tweet to the top of our profiles “so it’s easy for your followers to see what you’re all about.” It’s a step towards a more holistic vision of identity online.

When you meet someone, you often ask them “how are you?” and the answer usually tells you almost nothing about them. They say they’re fine or describe the day’s wins or losses, but those tiny data points don’t represent their personality. Yet despite the dysfunction of this behavior, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all designed their profiles to mimic it when someone comes to check us out.

Sure, you can dive into someone’s albums or interests, but above the fold we mostly just get the answers to “What do you do?” and “What’s up?” A short bio, and a few of their most recent posts. Most people never make it further than this. If you do peer into their photos, what they Like, or who they follow, you’re again stuck browsing reverse chronologically with little to signify what’s most important to the person you’re learning about.

It’s like our profiles have the memories of goldfish.


Rather than a brief encounter on the street, our social profiles might do better mirroring the way we decorate our homes and show them off to people we invite in. You don’t have the three latest photos you’ve taken sitting on you mantle. You have your favorites, the ones that show the things and people you care about most. You might have a large collection of books or records, but you feature a few favorites facing forward on the shelf, or on the coffee table, or by the stereo.

Curation allows us to distill a lifetime of experience into a representative sample of ourselves. And conveying our identity accurately is critical to connecting to like-minds on the Internet. There are a billion people to circle, friend, or follow, so social networks need to make it easier to choose who we let into our feeds.

Twitter moved in the right direction today with the new web profile. By pinning a tweet to the top of your profile, you can say that this quip, photo, or link shows who you really are instead of just what you posted today. It lets you say “this is something you can judge me by. Take it or leave it.”

Twitter will also now intelligently increase the size of your Best Tweets: “Tweets that have received more engagement will appear slightly larger, so your best content is easy to find.” It effectively crowdsources curation of your profile. 

The tweet at the top with 14 favorites gets shown larger than one with no favorites thanks to Twitter's new Best Tweets feature

The top tweet with 14 favorites gets shown larger than one with no favorites thanks to Twitter’s new Best Tweets feature

Together, these should make it much quicker to figure out if you should follow someone…or unfollow them. It can be tough ditching people from your feed based on just their latest tweets. Now if I see someone has an inane tweet pinned, I can unfollow with confidence.

Facebook’s Timeline offers plenty of curation and privacy options, but they mostly influence your archive of old posts that few people will really dig through. Facebook has offered the ability for Pages to pin a post for two years but hasn’t equipped users with it. You can choose what “sections” of content like Friends, Likes, Music, Games, Books, Events, or Notes you want to feature on the left rail of your profile. But most of these appear below the fold and the section management system is hidden and seems widely ignored.

Timeline has also taken several steps backwards on curation since it launched. It removed the ability to increase the size of specific photos in your albums, and no longer lets you feature favorite musicians or books atop those tabs.  Oh, and Google+ doesn’t seem to have any curation options beyond a cover image.

Where does this go next? A whole best tweets tab on Twitter, or best updates or photos tabs in Facebook based on engagment could make it even simpler to get a feeling for someone. Or the option to curate a canvas with whatever I want. I’d personally enjoy the option to create a Pinteresque board inside my other social networks that shows off a comprehensive look at who I think I am.

It’s understandable why these networks initially designed their profiles to be reverse chronological. That worked when we hadn’t shared much in to date. But Twitter is almost 8 years old and Facebook just turned 10. The ways we introduce ourselves online shouldn’t have amnesia.

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GitHub Denies Allegations Of “Gender-Based Harassment,” Co-Founder Preston-Werner Resigns

GitHub published a short blog post today detailing the results of its investigation over allegations of harassment lodged against the company by its now-former employee Julie Ann Horvath.

According to the company, the “investigation found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment.” However, the company acknowledges that the investigation did uncover “evidence of mistakes and errors of judgement.” GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner, party to many of Hoervath’s statments, has resigned.

GitHub issued a blanket denial regarding “the remaining allegations,” stating that the investigation found “no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.”

Horvath’s original comments about the co-founder following her departure were sharp. As TechCrunch reported at the time:

According to Horvath, the founder accused her of threatening his wife, who she had not interacted with or contacted since the wife asked her out to drinks. Horvath cried during the episode, as she said the founder both “chastised” her and called her a “liar.” Horvath said the founder ended the meeting by saying that it was “bad judgement” to date coworkers (referring to her relationship, which was with another employee at GitHub) and then left. Horvath recalls sitting there after his departure both “crying and shaking uncontrollably.”

Preston-Werner also published a blog post today admitting to “mistakes” but firmly denying that he behaved in a way that was biased due to gender:

First, I want to address the serious accusations that were made against me and my family over the past month. With every decision I made at GitHub and in every interaction I had with employees, I tried to treat people better than they expected and to resolve conflict with empathy. Despite that, I’ve made mistakes, and I am deeply sorry to anyone who was hurt by those mistakes. It devastates me to know that I missed the mark, and I will strive to do better, every day.

That said, I want to be very clear about one thing: neither my wife, Theresa, nor I have ever engaged in gender-based harassment or discrimination. The results of GitHub’s independent investigation unequivocally confirm this and we are prepared to fight any further false claims on this matter to the full extent of the law. I believe in diversity and equality for all people in all professions, especially the tech sector. It’s immensely important to me and I will continue to do my very best to further that belief.

Preston-Werner expressed an interest “immersive computing,” hinting at where he might work next.

GitHub is instituting new controls and procedures to better provide “an inclusive work environment,” including training and “employee-led initiatives.”

Following the release of both posts, Horvath released a set of tweets constituting a rebuttal of the published notes. At the time of writing, Horvath has not replied to TechCrunch’s request for comment. Here are her tweets concerning the recent developments:

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Automattic Acquires Longreads, The App For Discovering And Reading Long-Form Content Online

Automattic, the parent company of, has acquired Longreads, the platform for discovering and reading long-form writing content on the web. Financial terms have not been disclosed.

In an email to TechCrunch, Longreads founder and CEO Mark Armstrong (pictured here) said that the Longreads service will continue to function exactly as it did before the acquisition. Joining Automattic, he said in a company blog post announcing the deal, will give his team the resources they need to continue to scale their product offering:

“Our team has always been small — Longreads is Mike Dang, Kjell Reigstad, Hakan Bakkalbasi, Julia Wick, Joyce King Thomas and me — and we’ve known that, to make good on our original vision, we’d need more help, from the community and from like-minded partners.

…We see a huge opportunity to go deeper with our mission, both through Longreads and—to find undiscovered talent, to celebrate the work of writers and publishers you already love, and bring even more of the best storytelling onto the Internet. The editorial team is growing, and we’re excited to now be a part of it.”

Longreads, which was founded five years ago as a simple service that shared curated links to long-form content, has never taken on outside venture funding. The service has expanded and sustained itself through an optional paid membership model, where dedicated users have paid $30 a year for access to premium Longreads features.

The membership model will continue to be available post-acquisition, Armstrong said in his blog post today: “If you are a Longreads Member, your generous contributions will continue to go toward our editorial budget, to ensure we can bring more stories to this community.”

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