Pinterest acquires and shutters Punchfork

The mayfly life of a 2010s start-up.

Pinterest has made its first acquisition: the recipe sharing site Punchfork (think Pinterest for food and you're basically there), which has been taken over for an undisclosed amount.

Punchfork's CEO, Jeff Miller, announced the acquisition in a letter which ends with a depressingly familiar paragraph:

Initially, support for Punchfork will continue, but we will soon be retiring the Punchfork site, API and mobile apps. We believe that a unified destination benefits our users in the long run, and the Punchfork team will focus on contributing to Pinterest as the premier platform for discovering and sharing new recipes and other interests on the web.

It's depressingly familiar because it's a tale that happens again and again. Enough that Maciej Cegłowski, the founder of Pinboard – no relation – called it out over a year ago:

Were you a big Gowalla fan? Did you like Dodgeball? Did you think Trunk.ly (gasp!) was better than Pinboard? Did you make a lot of contributions to Nextstop? Do you miss Aardvark and EtherPad? Did "I Want Sandy" change your life? 

These projects are all very different, but the dynamic is the same. Someone builds a cool, free product, it gets popular, and that popularity attracts a buyer. The new owner shuts the product down and the founders issue a glowing press release about how excited they are about synergies going forward. They are never heard from again.

When you've been given a useful service for free, it's hard to complain too much. Unless that service has been built up on the explicit use of your data and the implicit suggestion that that data will continue to be available, of course. Then complain all you want.

The problem is that even Maciej's solution is no longer seemingly viable. He wrote that the answer was to not be a free user:

If every additional user is putting money in the developers' pockets, then you're less likely to see the site disappear overnight. If every new user is costing the developers money, and the site is really taking off, then get ready to read about those synergies.

But that doesn't seem to fly anymore. After all, the developers of Sparrow were acqhired (one of those awful yet annoyingly descriptive Silicon Valley terms) despite the fact that their mail apps – for Mac and iOS – weren't free.

I guess the only thing to shout is godspeed to Punchfork, and all hail our increasingly concentrated media overlords.

Punchfork

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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