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Cyber Saturday—Meet Vero, a Lebanese Billionaire's Anti-Facebook

Apr 15

Cyber Saturday—Meet Vero, a Lebanese Billionaire's Anti-Facebook

Good morning, Cyber Saturday readers.

While Mark Zuckerberg ran the Congressional gauntlet this week, Ayman Hariri opportunistically toured the media circuit with a contrary message.

I met the Lebanese billionaire and brother of that nation’s on-again, off-again prime minister at a coffee shop in Brooklyn where he pitched me on his social network. Hariri’s 3-year-old app, Vero, has a novel value proposition: privacy. He designed the service as an alternative to Facebook and Instagram. Unlike those mass-market mainstays, Vero does not track people, Hariri claims. It does not build profiles of users (or non-users, for that matter) for marketers to exploit, he says. And it certainly does not use endless data mining, AI-driven tweaking, and A/B testing, he asserts, to personalize the content in one’s feed so as to maximize engagement.

No, Vero is a safe space, he says.

“When you choose to share a private moment with your close friends, only they get to see it,” Hariri told me. He showed off four gradations of privacy one can set on any post, with the others, in order of decreasing level of intimacy, tailored to “friends,” “acquaintances,” and “followers.” Hariri drew an analogy to the physical world, noting that when a person visits your home “you let them in and they only go into the living room, they don’t have to go all the way to the bedroom.”

Hariri’s sleek app has been garnering attention amid Facebook’s parade of screw-ups and scandals. The service now boasts 4 million accounts—including, as of Friday, one registered by actress Susan Sarandon. Offering a glimpse of his profile, Hariri enthusiastically scrolled through photos of himself backstage on the set of Batman v Superman, access he gained after winning a charity auction. (He is an avowed comic book geek.) The app has a Tumblr vibe, a touch of what might have been if that service had doubled down on catering to creatives, instead of selling out to Yahoo and futilely attempting to challenge Facebook and Google at their own game.

Hariri has a somewhat checkered past. The heir has faced allegations of mismanaging his family’s construction conglomerate, Saudi Oger, and failing to pay workers. (He says he sold his stake in the business in 2014, before the company’s ruination.) Even so, I find myself rooting for an alternative to Facebook, whose stranglehold on the social networking market is evident in the company’s ownership of three of the top five free apps in Apple’s app store.

Hariri says he plans to monetize Vero by charging people the equivalent of “a couple cups of coffee per year,” a fee that will no doubt prove a turn-off for many prospective users. But Hariri doesn’t need scale; he just needs enough subscriptions to get by. “People understand the cost of free and you can’t un-understand that,” he says.

Maybe Vero is the next Snap, or maybe it will go the way of the Ello. Either way, it’s nice to see some experimentation with consumer-oriented business models that buck today’s Internet surveillance standard.

Have a great weekend. I’ll be brunching with friends on this fine spring day.

Robert Hackett


Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’sdaily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my, PGP encrypted email (see public key on my, Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


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