A mysterious hacker gang is on a supply-chain hacking spree

Stylized photo of desktop computer.

Enlarge (credit: Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

software supply-chain attack represents one of the most insidious forms of hacking. By breaking into a developer’s network and hiding malicious code within apps and software updates that users trust, supply-chain hijackers can smuggle their malware onto hundreds of thousands—or millions—of computers in a single operation, without the slightest sign of foul play. Now what appears to be a single group of hackers has managed that trick repeatedly, going on a devastating supply-chain hacking spree—and the hackers have become more advanced and stealthy as they go.

Over the past three years, supply-chain attacks that exploited the software distribution channels of at least six different companies have now all been tied to a single group of likely Chinese-speaking hackers. The group is known as Barium, or sometimes ShadowHammer, ShadowPad, or Wicked Panda, depending on which security firm you ask. More than perhaps any other known hacker team, Barium appears to use supply-chain attacks as its core tool. Its attacks all follow a similar pattern: seed out infections to a massive collection of victims, then sort through them to find espionage targets.

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India unseats China as Asia’s top fintech funding source

China’s massive fintech industry took a beating in recent months as the government continued to wind down online lending nationwide, rattling investor confidence.

Funding for fintech startups shrank 87.6 percent year-over-year to $192.1 million during the first quarter of 2019, a new report from data provider CB Insights shows. India, which recorded $285.6 million raised for fintech startups in the period, overtook China to be Asia’s top fundraising hub for financial technology. Both countries clocked in 29 fintech deals, suggesting a cooling investor sentiment in China which saw its height of 76 deals just three quarters ago.

cb insights china q1

Chart: CB Insights

The plunge in China has followed on the heels of tightened regulation around online lending, suggests CB Insights . Over the past few years, China has rolled out a flurry of measures to rein in financial risks arising from its fledgling online lending industry. Peer-to-peer lending, which matches an individual looking for a loan with someone looking to invest, has been the top target in a wave of government crackdowns.

This kind of service offers credit to unbanked individuals who cannot otherwise get loans in a country without a mature unified credit system. But a lack of oversight led to rampant frauds across the board. Thousands of peer-to-peer lending sites shut down due to increased regulation, which is estimated to leave as few as 300 players on the market by the end of 2019, Shanghai-based research firm Yingcai forecasted.

Like China, India’s enthusiasm for finance technology is in part a result of the country’s lack of financial infrastructure. Lending startups are gathering steam as they, like their Chinese counterparts, tailor services to the country’s large unbanked and underbanked consumers and enterprises. Moves from tech leaders are also set to send ripples through the rest of the industry. Amazon finally followed its rivals Paytm, Google Pay and PhonePe to start offering peer-to-peer payments in the country. Walmart is closely watching how Flipkart, which it bought out last year, applies data to payments solution.

cb insights china q1

Chart: CB Insights

Despite the setback in online lending, a new form of consumer-facing financing vehicle — so-called mutual aid platforms that let patients crowdfund for serious diseases — is enjoying an early boom in China, CB Insights noted in its report. As with peer-to-peer lending, internet-powered mutual aid is trying to fill gaps in a traditional industry. Though most Chinese people are part of a national public insurance scheme, surgical bills can easily bring down an average family.

The top two performers in the sector are unsurprisingly from the top two opposing camps in China’s tech world. Shuidihuzhu, which translates as “water drop mutual help” in Chinese, counts Tencent as a major investor. Users contribute as little as half a cent to a pool of funds that pays out when a patient needs financial aid. The three-year-old platform, which leverages Tencent’s billion-user WeChat messenger to sign up members, claims it has attracted 78.8 million users and paid out nearly 440 million yuan $65.34 million to more than 3,100 families so far.

Shuidihuzhu’s rival, which is called Xiang Hu Bao and means “mutual protection”, is run by Alibaba’s affiliate e-wallet Alipay. Launched only last September, the service said it had acquired over 50 million users by April and had set itself up for an ambitious goal: to reach low-income groups who can’t afford the premiums and advance payments attached to traditional health insurance and to acquire 300 million users in the next two years. That means almost a third of Alipay users, most of whom live in Chia. By the end of 2018, the digital wallet had over 1 billion annual users worldwide.

China’s grocery delivery battle heats up with Meituan’s entry

Fast, affordable food delivery service has been life-changing for many working Chinese, but some still prefer to whip up their own meals. These people may not have the time to pick up fresh ingredients from brick-and-mortar stores, so China’s startups and large companies are trying to make home-cooked meals more effortless for busy workers by sending vegetables and meats to apartment doors.

The fresh grocery sector in China recorded 4.93 trillion yuan ($730 billion) in total sales last year, growing steadily from 3.37 trillion yuan in 2012 according to data collected by Euromonitor and Hua Chuang Securities. Most of these transactions still happen inside wet markets and supermarkets, leaving online retail, which accounted for only 3 percent of total grocery sales in 2016, much room for growth.

Ecommerce leaders Alibaba and JD.com have already added grocery to their comprehensive online shopping malls, nestling in the market with more focused players like Tencent-backed MissFresh (每日优鲜), which has raised $1.4 billion to date. The field has just grown a little more crowded with new entrant Meituan, the Tencent-backed food delivery and hotel booking giant that raised $4.2 billion through a Hong Kong listing last year.

meituan grocery

Screenshots of the Meituan Maicai app / Image: Meituan Maicai

The service, which comes in a new app called “Meituan Maicai” or Meituan grocery shopping that’s separate from the company’s all-in-one app, set out in Shanghai in January before it muscled into Beijing last week. The move follows Meituan’s announcement in its mid-2018 financial report to get in on grocery delivery.

Meituan’s solution to take grocery the last mile is not too different from those of its peers. Users pick from its 1,500 stock keeping units ranging from yogurt to pork loin, fill their in-app shopping carts and pay via their phones, the firm told TechCrunch. Meituan then dispatches its delivery fleets to people’s doors in as little as 30 minutes.

The instant delivery is made possible by a satellite of physical “service stations” across neighborhoods that serve warehousing, packaging and delivering purposes. Placing offline hubs alongside customers also allows data-driven internet firms to optimize warehouse stocking based on local user preferences. For instance, people from an upscale residential area probably eat and shop differently from those in other parts of the city.

Meituan’s foray into grocery shopping further intensifies its battle with Alibaba to control how Chinese people eat. Alibaba’s Hema Supermarket has been running on a similar setup that uses its neighborhood stores as warehouses and fulfillment centers to facilitate 30-minute delivery within a three-kilometer radius. For years, Meituan’s food delivery arm has been going neck-and-neck with Ele.me, which Alibaba scooped up last year. More recently, Alibaba and Meituan are racing to get restaurants to sign up for their proprietary software, which can supposedly give owners more insights into diners and beef up customer engagement.

As part of its goal to be an “everything” app, Meituan has tried out many new initiatives in the lead-up to its initial public offering but was also quick to put them on hold. The firm acquired bike-sharing service Mobike last April only to shutter its operations across Asia in less than a year for cost-saving. Meituan also paused expansion on its much-anticipated ride-hailing business.

But grocery delivery appears to be closer to Meituan’s heart, the “eating” business, to put in its own words. Meituan is tapping its existing infrastructure to get the job done, for example, by summoning its food delivery drivers to serve the grocery service during peak hours. As the company noted in its earnings report last year, the grocery segment could leverage its “massive user base and existing world’s largest intra-city on-demand delivery network.”

Alibaba and Amazon move over, we visited JD’s connected grocery store in China

China’s YY eyes overseas live streaming with $1.45B Bigo buyout

One of China’s top live streaming companies YY bought a stake and obtained the right to purchase a majority share in Bigo last June, and now the other shoe has dropped after YY fully acquired the Singapore-based startup behind live streaming app Bigo Live and short-video service Like.

That’s according to an announcement YY made on Monday, which disclosed it has bought out the remaining 68.3 percent of all the issued and outstanding shares of Bigo for a price tag of about $1.45 billion.

Bigo’s connection to YY is deep-rooted. Li Xueling, a veteran Chinese journalist who’s also known as David Li, founded YY in 2005 well before the heyday of mobile-based live streaming apps. With the intent to bring the China-tested business to overseas markets, Li started Bigo in 2016 to replicate YY’s lucrative revenue model where the platform operator takes a cut whenever viewers reward streamers with virtual gifts, which can be cashed out.

YY racked up $675 million in net revenues and a net income of around $100 million from the fourth quarter of 2018, its latest earnings report shows.

The Bigo buyout is set to be a huge boost to YY’s international ambitions as its home market has been divided up between YY itself, its spin-off Huya that focuses on esports streaming and Huya’s archrival Douyu. Curiously, both Douyu and Huya are backed by Tencent, the company best known for the WeChat messenger but is also China’s largest games publisher.

To bring the domestic rivalry into perspective, Nasdaq-listed YY recorded a monthly mobile user base of 90.4 million in the fourth quarter. Huya, which priced its U.S. initial public offering at $180 million last August, posted a monthly of 50.7 million users from the same period. Douyu hasn’t recently unveiled its size as the company is reportedly mulling to go public in the U.S., but third-party data analytics company QuestMobile put its MAU in December at 43 million.

“We are very excited to announce the completion of the acquisition of Bigo. It is an important milestone for YY group which demonstrated our confidence and commitment to the globalization strategy,” said Li of YY in a statement.

Huya and Douyu have also ventured beyond China for new growth with their respective overseas brands Nimo TV and Nonolive. In its Q4 earnings report, Huya singled out foreign markets as one area of focus in 2019 and its Nimo already enjoys having a powerful ally, Tencent, which signed an agreement last July to help it with gaming content and brand recognition.

nimo tv

Huya’s overseas brand Nimo TV

“In addition to our vigorous domestic growth, we have successfully leveraged our unique business model to enter new overseas markets,” said chief executive Dong Rongjie. “We believe we are delivering long-term value through strategic investments in overseas markets in 2019 and beyond.”

While anchoring in Southeast Asia, Bigo has debuted in over 100 countries worldwide and been in the top ten of Apple’s app store not just in neighboring countries like Vietnam and Cambodia but also in Paraguay, Yeman and Angola, according to data collected by app tracking service App Annie. Growth in India has been particularly strong this year as the country captured 32 percent of Bigo’s 11 million new Android users who downloaded the app via Google Play between January and February, according to data provided by SensorTower.

Li estimated in 2017 that Bigo was generating an annual revenue of $300 million at the time. Bigo claims 200 million registered users to date with MAUs reaching almost 37 million worldwide. Its popularity has, however, gone hand in hand with its reputation for hosting offensive content, but the startup has assured it deploys resources to closely screen content. Back in China, YY, Huya, Douyu and the likes are constantly grappling with the government’s tightening grip over online information, which puts the burden on media companies to keep a robust content monitoring team to not only rid illegal videos but also parse the country’s opaque definition of what’s considered “inappropriate”.

Update (March 5, 2019, 13:00pm): Added details on Bigo’s growth and Huya’s overseas expansion

VW’s futuristic all-electric dune buggy embraces its 1960s’ roots

Volkswagen has added another member to its ever-expanding I.D. line of concept electric vehicles that’s meant to showcase the automaker’s electric future. This time it’s the I.D. Buggy, an all-electric dune buggy with some 1960s California subculture flair.

The I.D. Buggy, which made its global debut Monday at the 89th Geneva International Motor Show, is meant to show the versatility of the automaker’s modular electric drive toolkit chassis, or MEB. The MEB, which was introduced in 2016, is a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

For instance, the two-seater buggy can be converted to a 2+2-seater and an additional electric motor can be added to the front axle in order to make four-wheel drive possible, the company said. The modular design allows for the composite upper body to be detached from the MEB chassis, which VW argues will open up a “world of possibilities for third-party manufacturers, as the original Meyers Manx kit did for the first buggies.” The Meyers Manx kit was the creation of California engineer, boat builder and surfer Bruce Meyers who modified the original Volkswagen Beetle to make it suitable for desert racing. 

The I.D. Buggy is equipped with a a 62kWh lithium-ion battery and a 201-horsepower electric motor in the rear to give it an expected range of 155 miles on the WLTP cycle, the company said. There are no doors or a roof in the two-seater, which VW says gives drivers the “purest experience of classic beach cruising.”

The vehicle has three-dimensional oval LED headlights and taillights and an LED VW logo. The automaker also touts the buggy’s body that seems to “float above the chassis,” an effect achieved by how its painted.

Volkswagen has been showing off its I.D. line of concept electric vehicles for several years now.  And some of them are even going into production. There is the electric all-wheel drive microbus called I.D. Buzz, a futuristic take on the family camper van that VW introduced as a concept in 2017, the I.D. Vizzion self-driving sedan concept, and of course, the I.D. Crozz SUV concept that was first shown at the North American International Auto Show  last year.

The I.D. Crozz and I.D. Buzz are going into production. It’s not clear if the I.D. Buggy will ever be anything more than concept.

Earlier this year, VW announced plans to spend $800 million to expand a U.S. factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., that will produce the automaker’s next generation of electric vehicles.

VW’s Chattanooga expansion is just a piece of the automaker’s broader plan to move away from diesel in the wake of the emissions cheating scandal that erupted in 2015. The company is also building a European facility in Zwickau, Germany, set to begin EV production in 2019 and adding EV-production at facilities in Anting and Foshan, in China, in 2020, and in the German cities of Emden and Hanover by 2022.

The Tennessee factory (along with the other new facilities) will produce EVs using Volkswagen’s MEB chassis. Volkswagen of America says it will offer the first EV based on the MEB platform to customers in 2020. Electric vehicle production at the Tennessee site will begin in 2022.

It isn’t just apps. China’s cinemas broke records during Lunar New Year

China celebrated Lunar New Year last week as hundreds of millions of people travelled to their hometowns. While many had longed to see their separated loved ones, others dreaded the weeklong holiday as relatives awkwardly caught up with them with questions like: “Why are you not married? How much do you earn?”

Luckily, there are ways to survive the festive time in this digital age. Smartphone usage during this period has historically surged. Short video app TikTok’s China version Douyin noticeably took off by acquiring 42 million new users over the first week of last year’s holiday, a report from data analytics firm QuestMobile shows. Tencent’s mobile game blockbuster Honor of Kings similarly gained 76 percent DAUs during that time, according to another QuestMobile report.

People also hid away by immersing themselves in the cinema during the Lunar New Year, a movie-going period akin to the American holiday season. This year, China wrapped up the first six days of the New Year with a record-breaking 5.8 billion ($860 million) yuan box office, according to data collected by Maoyan, Alibaba’s movie ticketing service slated for an initial public offering.

The new benchmark, however, did not reflect an expanding viewership. Rather, it came from price hikes in movie tickets, market research firm EntGroup suggests. On the first day of Year of the Pig, tickets were sold at an average of 45 yuan ($6.65), up from 39 yuan last year. That certainly put some price-sensitive audience off — though not by a huge margin as there wasn’t much to do otherwise. (Shops were closed. Fireworks and firecrackers, which are traditionally set off during the New Year to drive bad spirits away, are also banned in most Chinese cities for safety concerns.) Cinemas across China sold 31.69 million tickets on the first day, a slight decline from last year’s 32.63 million.

Dawn of Chinese sci-fi

wandering earth 2

Image source: The Wandering Earth via Weibo

Many Chinese companies don’t return to work until this Thursday, so the box office results are still being announced. Investment bank Nomura put the estimated total at 6.2 billion yuan. What’s also noticeable about this year’s film-inspired holiday peak is the fervor that sci-fi The Wandering Earth whipped up.

American audiences may find in the Chinese film elements of Interstellar’s space adventures, but The Wandering Earth will likely resonate better with the Chinese audience. Adapted from the novel of Hugo Award-winning Chinese author Liu Cixin, the film tells the story of the human race seeking a new home as the aging sun is about to devour the earth. A group of Chinese astronauts, scientists and soldiers eventually work out a plan to postpone the apocalypse — a plot deemed to have stoke Chinese viewers’ sense of pride, though the rescue also involves participation from other nations.

The film, featuring convincing special effects, is also widely heralded as the dawn of Chinese-made sci-fi films. The sensation gave rise to a wave of patriotic online reviews like “If you are Chinese, go watch The Wandering Earth” though it’s unclear whether the discourse was genuine or have been manipulated.

Alibaba’s movie powerhouse

This record-smashing holiday has also been a big win for Alibaba, the Chinese internet outfit best known for ecommerce and increasingly cloud computing. Its content production segment Alibaba Pictures has backed five of the movies screened during the holiday, one of which being the blockbuster The Wandering Earth that also counts Tencent as an investor.

Tech giants with online streaming services are on course to upend China’s film and entertainment industry, a sector traditionally controlled by old-school production houses. In its most recent quarter, Alibaba increased its stake to take majority control in Alibaba Pictures, the film production business it acquired in 2014. Tencent and Baidu have also spent big bucks on content creation. While Tencent zooms in on video games and anime, Baidu’s Netflix-style video site iQiyi has received wide acclaim for house-produced dramas like Yanxi Palace, a smash hit drama about backstabbing concubines that was streamed over 15 billion times.

Seeing all the entertainment options on the table, the Chinese government made a pre-emptive move against the private players by introducing a news app designed for propaganda purposes in the weeks leading to the vacation.

“The timing of the publishing of this app might be linked to the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as an opportunity and a necessity to spread their ideology,” Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of the research area on public policy and society of German think tank MERICS, told TechCrunch earlier. “[It] may be hoping that people would use the holiday season to take a closer look, but probably also knowing that most people would rather choose other sources to relax, consume and travel.”

The article has been updated to correct Kristin Shi-Kupfer’s title.

It isn’t just apps. China’s cinemas broke records during Lunar New Year

China celebrated Lunar New Year last week as hundreds of millions of people travelled to their hometowns. While many had longed to see their separated loved ones, others dreaded the weeklong holiday as relatives awkwardly caught up with them with questions like: “Why are you not married? How much do you earn?”

Luckily, there are ways to survive the festive time in this digital age. Smartphone usage during this period has historically surged. Short video app TikTok’s China version Douyin noticeably took off by acquiring 42 million new users over the first week of last year’s holiday, a report from data analytics firm QuestMobile shows. Tencent’s mobile game blockbuster Honor of Kings similarly gained 76 percent DAUs during that time, according to another QuestMobile report.

People also hid away by immersing themselves in the cinema during the Lunar New Year, a movie-going period akin to the American holiday season. This year, China wrapped up the first six days of the New Year with a record-breaking 5.8 billion ($860 million) yuan box office, according to data collected by Maoyan, Alibaba’s movie ticketing service slated for an initial public offering.

The new benchmark, however, did not reflect an expanding viewership. Rather, it came from price hikes in movie tickets, market research firm EntGroup suggests. On the first day of Year of the Pig, tickets were sold at an average of 45 yuan ($6.65), up from 39 yuan last year. That certainly put some price-sensitive audience off — though not by a huge margin as there wasn’t much to do otherwise. (Shops were closed. Fireworks and firecrackers, which are traditionally set off during the New Year to drive bad spirits away, are also banned in most Chinese cities for safety concerns.) Cinemas across China sold 31.69 million tickets on the first day, a slight decline from last year’s 32.63 million.

Dawn of Chinese sci-fi

wandering earth 2

Image source: The Wandering Earth via Weibo

Many Chinese companies don’t return to work until this Thursday, so the box office results are still being announced. Investment bank Nomura put the estimated total at 6.2 billion yuan. What’s also noticeable about this year’s film-inspired holiday peak is the fervor that sci-fi The Wandering Earth whipped up.

American audiences may find in the Chinese film elements of Interstellar’s space adventures, but The Wandering Earth will likely resonate better with the Chinese audience. Adapted from the novel of Hugo Award-winning Chinese author Liu Cixin, the film tells the story of the human race seeking a new home as the aging sun is about to devour the earth. A group of Chinese astronauts, scientists and soldiers eventually work out a plan to postpone the apocalypse — a plot deemed to have stoke Chinese viewers’ sense of pride, though the rescue also involves participation from other nations.

The film, featuring convincing special effects, is also widely heralded as the dawn of Chinese-made sci-fi films. The sensation gave rise to a wave of patriotic online reviews like “If you are Chinese, go watch The Wandering Earth” though it’s unclear whether the discourse was genuine or have been manipulated.

Alibaba’s movie powerhouse

This record-smashing holiday has also been a big win for Alibaba, the Chinese internet outfit best known for ecommerce and increasingly cloud computing. Its content production segment Alibaba Pictures has backed five of the movies screened during the holiday, one of which being the blockbuster The Wandering Earth that also counts Tencent as an investor.

Tech giants with online streaming services are on course to upend China’s film and entertainment industry, a sector traditionally controlled by old-school production houses. In its most recent quarter, Alibaba increased its stake to take majority control in Alibaba Pictures, the film production business it acquired in 2014. Tencent and Baidu have also spent big bucks on content creation. While Tencent zooms in on video games and anime, Baidu’s Netflix-style video site iQiyi has received wide acclaim for house-produced dramas like Yanxi Palace, a smash hit drama about backstabbing concubines that was streamed over 15 billion times.

Seeing all the entertainment options on the table, the Chinese government made a pre-emptive move against the private players by introducing a news app designed for propaganda purposes in the weeks leading to the vacation.

“The timing of the publishing of this app might be linked to the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as an opportunity and a necessity to spread their ideology,” Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of the research area on public policy and society of German think tank MERICS, told TechCrunch earlier. “[It] may be hoping that people would use the holiday season to take a closer look, but probably also knowing that most people would rather choose other sources to relax, consume and travel.”

The article has been updated to correct Kristin Shi-Kupfer’s title.

Microsoft confirms Bing is down in China

Microsoft’s Bing is down in China, according to users who took to social media beginning Wednesday afternoon to complain and express concerns.

The Seattle-based behemoth has confirmed that its search engine is currently inaccessible in China and is “engaged to determine next steps,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch Thursday morning.

Citing sources, the Financial Times reported (paywalled) on Thursday that China Unicom, a major state-owned telecommunication company, confirmed the government had ordered a block on Bing.

Public reaction

The situation appears to be a DNS (domain name system) corruption, one method for China to block websites through its intricate censoring system called the Great Firewall. When a user enters a domain name associated with a banned IP address, the Firewall will corrupt the connection to stop the page from loading.

Several users told TechCrunch they are still able to access Bing by directly visiting its IP address as of Thursday morning.

Other users writing on social media believe the block is a result of Bing’s server crash after a viral article (link in Chinese) attacking Baidu’s search quality directed traffic to its lesser-known American rival. Many referred to a Chinese report that says high traffic from Baidu had crashed Bing. The article, published by Jiemian, a news site under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, now returns a 404 error.

Microsoft has long tried to play by China’s rules by filtering out sensitive results from its search engine. It also modified Windows 10 for China back in 2017 through a collaboration with state-owned China Electronics Technology Group to eliminate Beijing’s fears of possible backdoors in the American software. Former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky lamented Bing’s blockage in China, writing on Twitter that Microsoft had “worked so hard to be successful there.”

Tight seal

Bing remained one of the few non-Chinese internet firms that still have their core products up and running in a country where Google and Facebook have long been unavailable. Another rare case is LinkedIn, which runs a filtered version of its social network for professionals and caught flack for bending to local censorship.

Bing also censors its search service for Chinese users, so it would be odd if its inaccessibility proves to be a case of government clampdown. That said, China appears to be further tightening control over the cyberspace. Case in point, LinkedIn recently started to run strict identity checks on its China-based users.

Baidu remains the biggest search engine in China with smaller rival Sogou coming in second. Bing, which some users find is a more pleasant alternative to local options that are usually flooded with ads, is active on 320,000 unique devices monthly, according to third-party research firm iResearch. That’s dwarfed by Baidu’s 466 million and Sogou’s 43 million.

Google told the U.S. Congress in December it had no immediate plans to relaunch its search engine in China but felt “reaching out and giving users more information has a very positive impact.” The Mountain View-based firm shut down its search engine in mainland China back in 2010 under pressure over censorship but also cited cyber attacks as a factor in its decision to leave.

Sequoia goes after early-stage with an accelerator program in India and Southeast Asia

Sequoia India is going deep into early-stage investing after it announced an accelerator program, Surge, which is focused on fledging startups in India and Southeast Asia, the two regions that it covers.

It’s been nearly six months since Sequoia India closed its newest $695 million fund — its fifth since its establishment 12 years ago — and with over 200 deals under its belt, it is going earlier than ever before. The Surge program is designed to work with a mix of companies; that could include founders with just an idea, to those at pre-launch or pre-seed, businesses with an existing product-market fit or even startups intending to pivot, Sequoia India managing director Shailendra Singh told TechCrunch.

“It’s a bold attempt to try to create a better program for seed to Series A,” Singh said in an interview. “We think founders are underserved. There is quality early-stage talent but we are trying to find a way to serve them better.”

Singh explained that the program is a result of extensive research. He said Sequoia India talked to startups, founders and investors, and that a series of Twitter polls he conducted last year show founders in India and Southeast Asia are too frequently under-capitalized, over-diluted and forced to spend too much time on the fundraising trail.

“We decided there is a better way,” Singh said.

So what is the Sequoia India solution?

Surge is aiming to recruit 10-20 companies per batch, with two cohorts running each year for four months each. Perhaps the most notable feature is that selected companies will receive a $1.5 million investment from Sequoia, with the option to raise more from the firm and other co-investors in a final “UpSurge” demo week that concludes the program. Participants will, however, need to pay a “program fee” although that is being waived for the first cohort.

On its website, the firm describes Surge as being designed to give founders an “unfair advantage, right out of the gate.”

That first program is scheduled to run in March and applications are open now, although Sequoia has already picked a small selection for the first program. While the focus is local startups, China-based startups looking at India and Southeast Asia and U.S. startups seeking an Asia will also be considered, the firm said.

Singh said equity will be negotiated on a company-by-company basis, but he anticipates that valuations will be will be in the range of “high single-digit to high-teens” pre-money. There’s no obligation for a Sequoia follow-on, and Singh stressed that a “curated” selection of investors will be invested to invest in the post-program round and even alongside the initial $1.5 million check.

Shailendra Singh, Sequoia India managing director

The program is quite unusual in being globally distributed. That’s to say that it is split into five ‘modules,’ each of which is hosted in a different city which taps into Sequoia’s global presence. That’ll include Singapore, China, India and Silicon Valley. Singh said each module will require founder presence for a week, when they will work together with Sequoia — including the firm’s AMP program — Surge mentors and others, before taking the learnings back to their company for the remainder of the month. The only exception is the final month, which will include an additional week for the demo segment.

Sequoia India has tapped its portfolio companies and other Sequoia investees to pull an initial list of mentors that include Nadiem Makarim (Go-Jek), Rajan Ananadan (Google), Byju Raveendran (Byju’s), Neeraj Arora (WhatsApp) and Kunal Shah (Freecharge and now Cred). Singh said more will be added after the public launch.

He added that Sequoia India is hiring dedicated Surge staff to work exclusively on the program. For now, the budget for the program will come from the India fund but, in the long term, Singh said a dedicated Surge fund could be created. That could be necessary given the potential costs from the program.

The focus is fairly vertical agnostic, Sequoia said, with a focus on the teams behind companies.

“The single biggest focus is on being founder-centric,” Singh told TechCrunch. “We want to assemble a group of founders who are quite special. We expect founders to learn a lot from each other.”

When I put it to Singh that Sequoia’s move into early stage puts it into competition with the very up-stream, seed investors that it works with to get Series A deal flow, he argued that Sequoia is already very present in that segment.

Pointing to a recent LinkedIn post — which reads like a precursor to today’s announcement — Singh said one-quarter of its deals have been with startups valued at $5 million or lower, with 64 percent at $10 million or lower.

“We’ve made seed investments and collaborated with other firms in the past. We’ve already spoken to a few friendly firms and they are excited to be involved,” Singh said.

Sequoia is well known for later-stage deals, but Sequoia’s Singh shared data showing that it is well invested in early-stage deals, too

That may well be true for some firms, but I can’t help but feel that others may be intimated at a deep-pocketed investor playing in their backyard. In such a case, there’s little more than you can do other than play along. That said, Singh seems genuinely keen to build links between Surge and other VCs at all levels.

“It’s not about us or them but what’s good for founders,” he explained, adding that Sequoia will “actively” work with firms to involve them in the program.

It’s definitely a fascinating move, and it is certainly one of Sequoia’s boldest strategies worldwide. It is too early to say if it will be replicated by Sequoia other global funds, but they will certainly be watching, as Singh himself admitted.

You can find more information about Surge here.

Scooter startup Bird tried to silence a journalist. It did not go well.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t like censorship. He especially doesn’t like his own work being censored.

Anyone who knows Doctorow knows his popular tech and culture blog, Boing Boing, and anyone who reads Boing Boing knows Doctorow and his cohort of bloggers. The part-blogger, part special advisor at the online rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has written for years on topics of technology, hacking, security research, online digital rights and censorship and its intersection with free speech and expression.

Yet, this week it looked like his own free speech and expression could have been under threat.

Doctorow revealed in a blog post on Friday that scooter startup Bird sent him a legal threat, accusing him of copyright infringement and that his blog post encourages “illegal conduct.”

In its letter to Doctorow, Bird demanded that he “immediately take[s] down this offensive blog.”

Doctorow declined, published the legal threat and fired back with a rebuttal letter from the EFF accusing the scooter startup of making “baseless legal threats” in an attempt to “suppress coverage that it dislikes.”

The whole debacle started after Doctorow wrote about how Bird’s many abandoned scooters can be easily converted into a “personal scooter” by swapping out its innards with a plug-and-play converter kit. Citing an initial write-up by Hackaday, these scooters can have “all recovery and payment components permanently disabled” using the converter kit, available for purchase from China on eBay for about $30.

In fact, Doctorow’s blog post was only two paragraphs long and, though didn’t link to the eBay listing directly, did cite the hacker who wrote about it in the first place — bringing interesting things to the masses in bite-size form in true Boing Boing fashion.

Bird didn’t like this much, and senior counsel Linda Kwak sent the letter — which the EFF published today — claiming that Doctorow’s blog post was “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property.” The letter also falsely stated that Doctorow’s blog post “provides links to a website where such Infringing Product may be purchased,” given that the post at no point links to the purchasable eBay converter kit.

EFF senior attorney Kit Walsh fired back. “Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article,” she wrote. “Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology.”

The three-page rebuttal says Bird used incorrectly cited legal statutes to substantiate its demands for Boing Boing to pull down the blog post. The letter added that unplugging and discarding a motherboard containing unwanted code within the scooter isn’t an act of circumventing as it doesn’t bypass or modify Bird’s code — which copyright law says is illegal.

As Doctorow himself put it in his blog post Friday: “If motherboard swaps were circumvention, then selling someone a screwdriver could be an offense punishable by a five year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine.”

In an email to TechCrunch, Doctorow said that legal threats “are no fun.”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: Journalist Cory Doctorow speaks onstage at “Snowden 2.0: A Field Report from the NSA Archives” during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Travis P Ball/Getty Images for SXSW)

“We’re a small, shoestring operation, and even though this particular threat is one that we have very deep expertise on, it’s still chilling when a company with millions in the bank sends a threat — even a bogus one like this — to you,” he said.

The EFF’s response also said that Doctorow’s freedom of speech “does not in fact impinge on any of Bird’s rights,” adding that Bird should not send takedown notices to journalists using “meritless legal claims,” the letter said.

“So, in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether Bird is right or wrong when it claims that it’s illegal to convert a Bird scooter to a personal scooter,” said Walsh in a separate blog post. “Either way, Boing Boing was free to report on it,” she added.

What’s bizarre is why Bird targeted Doctorow and, apparently, nobody else — so far.

TechCrunch reached out to several people who wrote about and were involved with blog posts and write-ups about the Bird converter kit. Of those who responded, all said they had not received a legal demand from Bird.

We asked Bird why it sent the letter, and if this was a one-off letter or if Bird had sent similar legal demands to others. When reached, a Bird spokesperson did not comment on the record.

Two hours after we published this story, Bird spokesperson Rebecca Hahn said the company supports freedom of speech, adding: “In the quest for curbing illegal activities related to our vehicles, our legal team overstretched and sent a takedown request related to the issue to a member of the media. This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow.”

All too often, companies send legal threats and demands to try to silence work or findings that they find critical, often using misinterpreted, incorrect or vague legal statutes to get things pulled from the internet. Some companies have been more successful than others, despite an increase in awareness and bug bounties, and a general willingness to fix security issues before they inevitably become public.

Now Bird becomes the latest in a long list of companies that have threatened reporters or security researchers, alongside companies like drone maker DJI, which in 2017 threatened a security researcher trying to report a bug in good faith, and spam operator River City, which sued a security researcher who found the spammer’s exposed servers and a reporter who wrote about it. Most recently, password manager maker Keeper sued a security reporter claiming allegedly defamatory remarks over a security flaw in one of its products. The case was eventually dropped, but not before more than 50 experts, advocates and journalist (including this reporter) signed onto a letter calling for companies to stop using legal threats to stifle and silence security researchers.

That effort resulted in several companies — notably Dropbox and Tesla — to double down on their protection of security researchers by changing their vulnerability disclosure rules to promise that the companies will not seek to prosecute hackers acting in good-faith.

But some companies have bucked that trend and have taken a more hostile, aggressive — and regressive — approach to security researchers and reporters.

“Bird Scooters and other dockless transport are hugely controversial right now, thanks in large part to a ‘move-fast, break-things’ approach to regulation, and it’s not surprising that they would want to control the debate,” said Doctorow.

“But to my mind, this kind of bullying speaks volumes about the overall character of the company,” he said.

Updated at 6pm ET: with statement from Bird.