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Facebook’s testimony to Congress: Libra will be regulated by Swiss

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, Congress, cryptocurrency, David Marcus, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, house of representatives, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Personnel, Social, TC, U.S. Senate | No Comments

The head of Facebook’s blockchain subsidiary Calibra David Marcus has released his prepared testimony before Congress for tomorrow and Wednesday, explaining that the Libra Association will be regulated by the Swiss government because that’s where it’s headquartered. Meanwhile, he says the Libra Association and Facebook’s Calibra wallet intend to comply will all U.S. tax, anti-money laundering and anti-fraud laws.

“The Libra Association expects that it will be licensed, regulated, and subject to supervisory oversight. Because the Association is headquartered in Geneva, it will be supervised by the Swiss Financial Markets Supervisory Authority (FINMA),” Marcus writes. “We have had preliminary discussions with FINMA and expect to engage with them on an appropriate regulatory framework for the Libra Association. The Association also intends to register with FinCEN [The U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] as a money services business.”

Marcus will be defending Libra before the Senate Banking Committee on July 16th and the House Financial Services Committees on July 17th. The House subcomittee’s Rep. Maxine Waters has already issued a letter to Facebook and the Libra Association requesting that it halt development and plans to launch Libra in early 2020 “until regulators and Congress have an opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

The big question is whether Congress is savvy enough to understand Libra to the extent that it can coherently regulate it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimonies before Congress last year were rife with lawmakers dispensing clueless or off-topic questions.

Sen. Orin Hatch infamously demanded to know “how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?,” to which Zuckerberg smirked, “Senator, we run ads.” If that concept trips up Congress, it’s hard to imagine it grasping a semi-decentralized stablecoin cryptocurrency that took us 4,000 words to properly explain, and a six-minute video just to summarize.

Attempting to assuage a core concern that Libra is trying to replace the dollar or meddle in financial policy, Marcus writes that “The Libra Association, which will manage the Reserve, has no intention of competing with any sovereign currencies or entering the monetary policy arena. It will work with the Federal Reserve and other central banks to make sure Libra does not compete with sovereign currencies or interfere with monetary policy. Monetary policy is properly the province of central banks.”

Marcus’ testimony comes days after President Donald Trump tweeted Friday to condemn Libra, claiming that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

TechCrunch asked Facebook for a response Friday, which it declined to provide. However, a Facebook spokesperson noted that the Libra Association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Regarding how Libra will comply with U.S. anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your-customer (KYC) laws, Marcus explains that “The Libra Association is similarly committed to supporting efforts by regulators, central banks, and lawmakers to ensure that Libra contributes to the fight against money laundering, terrorism financing, and more,” Marcus explains. “The Libra Association will also maintain policies and procedures with respect to AML and the Bank Secrecy Act, combating the financing of terrorism, and other national security-related laws, with which its members will be required to comply if they choose to provide financial services on the Libra network.”

He argues that “Libra should improve detection and enforcement, not set them back,” because cash transactions are frequently used by criminals to avoid law enforcement. “A network that helps move more paper cash transactions—where many illicit activities happen—to a digital network that features regulated on- and off-ramps with proper know-your-customer (KYC) practices, combined with the ability for law enforcement and regulators to conduct their own analysis of on-chain activity, will present an opportunity to increase the efficacy of financial crimes monitoring and enforcement.”

As for Facebook itself, Marcus writes that “The Calibra wallet will comply with FinCEN’s rules for its AML/CFT program and the rules set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) . . . Similarly, Calibra will comply with the Bank Secrecy Act and will incorporate KYC and AML/CFT methodologies used around the world.”

These answers might help to calm finance legal eagles, but I expect much of the questioning from Congress will deal with the far more subjective matter of whether Facebook can be trusted after a decade of broken privacy promises, data leaks and fake news scandals like Cambridge Analytica.

That’s why I don’t expect the following statement from Marcus about how Facebook has transformed the state of communication will play well with lawmakers that are angry about how those changes impacted society. “We have done a lot to democratize free, unlimited communications for billions of people. We want to help do the same for digital currency and financial services, but with one key difference: We will relinquish control over the network and currency we have helped create.” Congress may interpret “democratize” as “screw up,” and not want to see the same happen to money.

Facebook and Calibra may have positive intentions to assist the unbanked who are indeed swindled by banks and money transfer services that levy huge fees against poorer families. But Facebook isn’t acting out of pure altruism here, as it stands to earn money from Libra in three big ways that aren’t mentioned in Marcus’ testimony:

  1. It will earn a share of interest earned on the Libra Reserve of traditional currencies it holds as collateral for Libra that could mount into the billions if Libra becomes popular.
  2. It will see Facebook ad sales grow if merchants seek to do more commerce over the internet because they can easily and cheaply accept online payments through Libra and therefore put marketing spend into those efficiently converting channels like Facebook and Google.
  3. It will try to sell additional financial services through Calibra, potentially including loans and credit where it could ask users to let it integrate their Facebook data to get a better rate, potentially decreasing defaults and earning Facebook larger margins than other players.

The real-world stakes are much higher here than in photo sharing, and warrant properly regulatory scrutiny. No matter how much Facebook tries to distance itself from ownership of Libra, it started, incubated and continues to lead the project. If Congress is already convinced “big is bad,” and Libra could make Facebook bigger, that may make it difficult to separate their perceptions of Facebook and Libra in order to assess the currency on its merits and risks.

Below you can read Marcus’ full testimony:

For full details on how Libra works, read our feature story on everything you need to know:

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Facebook answers how Libra taxes & anti-fraud will work

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, cryptocurrency, donald trump, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, TC | No Comments

Facebook provided TechCrunch with new information on how its cryptocurrency will stay legal amidst allegations from President Trump that Libra could facilitate “unlawful behavior.” Facebook and Libra Association executives tell me they expect Libra will incur sales tax and capital gains taxes. They confirmed that Facebook is also in talks with local convenience stores and money exchanges to ensure anti-laundering checks are applied when people cash-in or cash-out Libra for traditional currency, and to let you use a QR code to buy or sell Libra in person.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company wouldn’t respond directly to Trump’s tweets, but noted that the Libra association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Trump had tweeted that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

For a primer on how Libra works, watch our explainer video below or read our deep dive into everything you need to know:

In a wide-reaching series of interviews this week, the Libra Association’s head of policy Dante Disparte, Facebook’s head economist for blockchain Christian Catalini and Facebook’s blockchain project subsidiary Calibra’s VP of product Kevin Weil answered questions about regulation of Libra. Here’s what we’ve learned (their answers were trimmed for clarity but not edited):

Would Facebook’s Calibra Wallet launch elsewhere even if it’s banned in the USA by regulators?

Calibra’s Kevin Weil: We believe that creating a financial ecosystem that has significantly broader access where all it takes is a phone and lower transaction fees across the board is good for people. And we want to bring it to as many people around the world as we can. But as a custodial wallet we are regulated and will be compliant and we will only operate in markets where we’re allowed.

We want that to be as many markets as possible. That’s why we announced well in advance of actually launching a product — because we’ve been engaging with regulators. We’re continuing to engage with regulators and we can help them understand the effort that we’re taking to make sure that people are safe and also the value that accrues to the people in their countries when there’s broader access to financial services with lower transaction fees across the board.

Facebook Calibra Libra Wallet

TechCrunch: But what if you’re banned in the U.S.?

Weil: I’m hesitant to give a blanket answer. But in general, we believe that Libra is positive for people and we want to launch as broadly as possible. The world where the U.S. does that I think would probably cause other regulatory regimes to also be concerned about it. I think that’s very much a bridge that we’ll cross when we get there. But so far we’re having frank, open and honest discussions with regulators. Obviously, that continues next week with David’s testimony. And I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I think that Libra can do a lot of good for a lot of people.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: The U.S. House subcommittee has already submitted a letter to Facebook requesting that it cease development of Libra and Calibra until regulators can better examine it and take action. It sounds like Facebook believes a U.S. ban on Libra/Calibra would cause a domino effect in other top markets, and therefore make it tough to rationalize still launching. That puts even more pressure on the outcome of July 16th and 17th’s congressional hearings on Libra with the head of Facebook’s head of Calibra, David Marcus.

How will users cash-in and cash-out of Libra in person?

We already know that Facebook’s own Libra wallet called Calibra will be baked into Messenger and WhatsApp plus have its own standalone app. There, those with connected bank accounts and government ID that go through a Know Your Customer (KYC) anti-fraud/laundering check will be able to buy and sell Libra. But a big goal of Libra is to bring the unbanked into the modern financial system. How does that work?

Weil: Because Libra is an open ecosystem, any money exchange business or entrepreneur can begin supporting cash-in/cash-out without needing any permission from anyone associated with the Libra Association or member of the Libra Association. They can just do it. Today in a lot of emerging markets [there’s a service for matching you with someone to exchange cryptocurrency for cash or vice-versa called] LocalBitcoins.com and I think you’ll see that with Libra too.

Second, we can augment that by by working with local exchanges, convenience stores and other cash-in/cash-out providers to make it easy from within Calibra. You could imagine an experience in the Calibra app or within Messenger or WhatsApp, where if you want to cash in or cash out, you’ll pop up a map that highlights physical locations around that allow you to do it. You select one that’s nearby, you select an amount, and you get a QR code that you can take to them and complete the transaction.

I’d imagine that most of these businesses that we work with will support Libra more broadly, so even if we get these deals started it will benefit the whole ecosystem and every Libra wallet, not just Calibra.

Facebook Calibra

TechCrunch: Have you struck relationships with any convenience store operators or money exchangers like Western Union or MoneyGram, or Walgreens, CVS or 7-Eleven? Are you in talks with them yet?

Weil: I probably shouldn’t comment on any specific deals but we’re in conversation with a lot of the folks you might think, because ultimately being able to move between Libra and your local currency is critical to driving adoption and utility in the early days . . . If you’re banked there are easier ways to do that. If you’re not banked and you’re in cash — those are the people we really want to serve with Libra — we’re working very hard to make that process easy for people.

TechCrunch’s analysis: This approach will let Calibra largely avoid the complicated and potentially error-prone process of KYCing people in person or handing out cash by offloading the responsibility and liability to other parties.

How will Libra stop fraud or laundering while offering access to unbanked users without ID?

Weil: There are very important populations that don’t have an ID. People in a refugee camp may not, as an example, and we want Libra to serve them. So this is one example of many of why it’s important that Calibra isn’t the only option for people who want to participate in the Libra ecosystem  . . . Others of these will be run by local providers and they have programs to meet customers face-to-face and other ways to serve people and even KYC them that we may not . . .  We’re not going be the only wallet, we don’t want to be the only wallet.

This is one of the reasons NGOs have been members of the Libra association from the start, because we want to encourage the monetization of identity processes both through working with governments issuing credentials for more people and also making use of new types of information for identity and authentication. We hope this process will hep the last mile problem.

In the case of a non-custodial wallet, the user isn’t trusting anyone. The way the regulations have worked and this is evolving as we speak. The on-ramps and off-ramps to the crypto world are regulated and they have direct customer relationships and it’s their responsibility to KYC people. In our case we’ll be a custodial wallet and we’ll KYC people. There are a number of wallets in the Bitcoin or Ethereum ecosystem — non-custodial wallets that don’t have a direct relationships with the users. . . They have to get that Bitcoin somehow. Usually they’re going through an exchange where usually as part of the process they’re KYC’d.

In a lot of emerging markets you have LocalBitcoins.com where you can find a representative or agent who will meet you in person and exchange cash for bitcoin in whatever market you have to be in. And I believe that they just started making sure that they KYC everyone, but they’re doing it in person. And they have more flexibility in how they do it than you might otherwise. I think there are lots of ways that this will happen and the fact that Libra is an open ecosystem will enable people to be entrepreneurial about it.

There are lots an lots of people who are underserved by today’s financial ecosystem who have government ID. So even with requiring everyone go through a KYC process, we’ll be able to serve many, many people who are not well-served by today’s financial ecosystem. We want to find ways to support people who can’t KYC and the important part is that Calibra will fully interoperate with any other wallet, including ones that people in local markets are using because it’s a better fit for their needs.

TechCrunch: Through that interoperability, if someone with a non-custodial wallet receives Libra and then sends it a Calibra wallet user, does that mean you Libra coming into Calibra from users who weren’t KYC’d and could be laundering money?

Weil: So it’s part of the regulatory situation that’s evolving as we speak. There’s something called the Travel Rule . . . If there’s a transfer above a certain value you have to make sure that you understand both who the sender is, which you do if they’re using a custodial wallet, and who the receiver is. These are evolving regulations, but it’s something that obviously we’re going to make sure that we implement as regulations solidify.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Calibra appears to be inviting regulation that it can strictly abide by rather than trying to guess at what the best approach is. But given it’s unclear when concrete rules will be established for transfers between non-custodial wallets and custodial wallets, or for in-person cashing, Facebook and Calibra may need to establish their own strong protocols. Otherwise they could be guilty of permitting the “unlawful behavior” Trump describes.

Libra Mission Statement

How will Libra be taxed?

Dante Disparte of Libra: Taxing of digital assets is something that’s being designed at the local level and at the jurisdiction level. Our view of the world is that like with any form of money or any form of payment or banking, the onus in terms of compliance with tax is with the individual user and consumer, and the same would hold true broadly here.

We expect that the many, many wallets and financial services providers building solutions on the Libra blockchain would begin to provide tools that make it much easier than it is today [to calculate and file taxes] for digital assets and cryptocurrencies more generally . . .  There’s plenty of time between now and Libra hitting the market to begin defining this more strictly at the jurisdictional level among providers.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Again, here Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association are hoping to avoid shouldering all the responsibility for taxes. Their position is that just as you have to take the initiative of paying your taxes whether or not you use a Visa card or your bank’s checks to transact, it’s on you to pay your Libra taxes.

TechCrunch: Do you think in the United States that it’s reasonable for the government to ask that Libra transactions be taxed?

Disparte: Tax treatments of digital assets broadly hasn’t been entirely clarified in most places around the world. And we hope that this is something that this project and the ecosystem around it helps to clarify.

Tax authorities will see a benefit from Libra at the consumption level and at the household level, while some cryptocurrencies have avoided taxes until the point they tried to cash out. But the nature of it and the lack of speculation and its design we think should give it a light tax treatment the way you would find with traditional currencies.

Calibra Transactions 2

Christian Catalini of Facebook: Cryptocurrencies are taxed right now every time you have a sale on the differences in gains and losses. Because Libra is designed to be a medium of exchange, those gains and losses are likely to be very tiny relative to your local currency . . . Sales tax would likely be implemented the exact same way on Libra as it is today when you pay with a credit card.

At launch giving current regulations, the Calibra wallet will have to track every purchase and sale of Libra for a U.S. user and those differences will have to be reported on tax day. You can think of the losses, albeit they may be very small gains and losses relative to USD, as similar to the what people do today when they have a Coinbase account with Bitcoin.

The sales tax I think could be implemented in the exact same way as it today with any other sort of digital payment, it would be no different. If you’re buying goods or services with Libra you’ll be paying sales tax the same way as if you used a different form of payment. Like today when you see a percentage, that is the sales tax on your total.

Disparte: Maybe the best way to frame how taxes work all over the world is that it’s not up to Libra, Calibra, Facebook or any company to make that determination. It’s up to regulators and authorities.

TechCrunch: Does Calibra already have plans in place for how to handle sales tax?

Weil: That’s also a pretty rapidly evolving part of the regulatory ecosystem right now. It’s really an ongoing discussion. We will do whatever the regulation says we need to do.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Here we have the firmest answers of our interviews. Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association believe the proper approach to taxes is that Libra transactions carry a country’s traditional sales tax, and that Libra you hold in your wallet will have to pay taxes based on the Libra stablecoin’s value (that’s pegged to a basket of international currencies) relative to the U.S. dollar.

If the Libra Association recommends all wallets and transactions follow these rules and Calibra builds in protocols to handle these taxes simply, at least the government can’t argue Libra is a method of dodging taxes and everyone paying their fair share.

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HQ Trivia has paid out $6M, but winners complain of delays

Posted by | Apps, Gaming, HQ Trivia, Mobile, payments, Personnel, Rus Yusupov, Startups, Talent, TC, trivia | No Comments

HQ Trivia’s troubles continue after a failed mutiny to oust the CEO, a 92% decline in downloads since versus a year ago, and layoffs of 20% of its staff last week. Now TechCrunch has learned HQ has failed to install a new CEO after months of searching. Meanwhile, users continue to complain about delays for payouts of their prizes from the live mobile trivia game, and about being booted from the game for no reason while on the final question.

Notably, Jeopardy winner Alex Jacob claims he hasn’t been paid the $20,000 he won on HQ Trivia on June 10th. This could shake players faith in HQ and erode their incentive to compete.

Guys, I need your help. I won $20,000 on @hqtrivia on June 10 and still haven’t heard anything about payment. Sadly, I don’t think they’re going to pay.

Please RT to tell HQ they should honor their jackpots. If I’m wrong, I’ll happily delete this & give $100 to someone who RT’d! pic.twitter.com/FmpY6unK49

— Alex Jacob (@whoisalexjacob) July 8, 2019

An HQ Trivia representative tells TechCrunch that the game has paid out $6.25 million to date and that 99% of players have been eligible to cash out within 48 hours of winning, but some winners may have to wait up to 90 days for it to ensure they didn’t break the rules to win. Given Jacob’s large jackpot, it’s possible the delay could be due to the company investigating to ensure he won fairly, though he’s clearly skilled at trivia given he won Jeopardy’s Tournament Of Champions in 2015. Jacob did not respond to requests for interview.

“We strive to make a game that is fair and fun for all players. As such, we have a rigorous process of reviewing winners for eligibility to receive cash prizes. Infrequently, we disqualify players for violating HQ‘s Terms of Service and Contest Rules” HQ Trivia’s press alias anonymously reponded to our request for comment. “It may take some eligible winners up to 90 days to receive cash prizes, however 99% of players have been able to cash out within 48 hours of winning a game and we have paid out a total of $6,252,634.58 USD to winners since launch.”

It seems that HQ’s internal problems are now metastasizing into public issues. Its team being short-staffed and distracted by weak morale could lengthen payout delays, which make players worry if they’ll ever get their cash. When they share those sentiments to social media, it could discourage others from playing. That, combined with concerns that bots and cheaters are winning the games, splitting the jackpots into tiny fractions so legitimate winners get less, has hurt the perception of HQ as a game where the smartest can win big.

Back in April, TechCrunch reported that 20 of HQ’s 35 staffers were preparing a petition to the board to remove CEO and co-founder Rus Yusupov for mismanagement. Yusupov caught wind of the plot and fired two of the leaders of the movement. However, HQ’s board decided it would bring in a new CEO. Board member and Tinder CEO Elie Seidman told TechCrunch that Yusupov had accepted he would be replaced by someone with the ability fire him and that a CEO search was ongoing. The startup’s lead investor Lightspeed has pledged to provide 18 months of funding once a new CEO was hired.

However, multiple sources tell TechCrunch that a new CEO has yet to be installed. One source tells me that management had promised a new CEO by the beginning of August, but that Yusupov had stalled the process seemingly to remain in power. HQ Trivia, Yusupov, and Seidman did not respond for requests for comment regarding the CEO search.

When asked about morale at the company, a source familiar with HQ’s internal situation told me “It’s terrible.” Yusupov is said to continue to be tough to work with, making decisions without full buy-in from the rest of the company. A substantial portion of the team was allegedly unaware of plans to launch a $9.99 subscription tier for HQ’s second game HQ Words until the company tweeted out the announcement.

Hopefully HQ Trivia can find a new captain to steer this ship back into smoother waters. The game has hundreds of thousands of players and many more with fond memories of competing. There’s still hope if it can evolve the product to give new users a taste of gameplay without waiting for the next scheduled match, find new revenue in expanded brand partnerships, fight off the bots and cheaters, and get everyone paid promptly. Perhaps there’s room for television tie-ins to bring HQ to a wider audience.

But before the startup can keep quizzing the world, HQ Trivia must endure its internal tests of resolve and find a champ to lead it.

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Uber Eats invades restaurants with Dine-In option

Posted by | allset, Apps, eCommerce, food, Mobile, OpenTable, payments, resy, TC, Uber, ubereats | No Comments

Tired of cleaning up after take-out or getting hangry waiting at your table in restaurants? Well Uber Eats is barging into the dine-in business. A new option in some cities lets you order your food ahead of time, go to the restaurant, then sit down inside to eat, a tipster from competing dine-in app Allset tells us. We tested it, and Uber Eats Dine-In even waives the standard Uber delivery and service fees.

Adding Dine-In lets Uber Eats insert itself into more food transactions, expand to restaurants that care about presentation and don’t do delivery and avoid paying drivers while earning low-overhead revenue. Uber’s Dine-In option is now available in some cities, including Austin, Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego, where it could save diners time and fees while helping restaurants fill empty tables and waiters earn tips. But it also could coerce more restaurants to play ball with UberEats if their competitors do, eating into their margins.

UberEats Dine In Option

Uber confirmed the existence of the Dine-In option, telling me, “We’re always thinking about new ways to enhance the Eats experience.” They also verified there are no delivery or service fees, and restaurants get 100% of tips left in-app by users. However, we found some items were silently marked up from restaurants’ listed prices in both Uber Eats Delivery and Dine-In options, which could help it make some money directly from these purchases. We also discovered this buried Uber Help Center FAQ with more details.

Uber has been rapidly experimenting with Uber Eats, trying discounted specials, Uber Eats Pool, where you pay less for slower delivery, and $9.99 unlimited delivery subscriptions. It’s steadily becoming an omnivore.

How Uber Dine-In Works

Dine-in appears next to the Delivery and Pick-Up options across the top of the Uber Eats app in select cities. You order from the menu and can choose to go eat “ASAP” or in some cases schedule when you want to arrive and sit down. You’ll be shown how long the food will take to prep, distance to the restaurant, your price and the restaurant’s rating. You’ll then be notified as the order is prepared and approaches readiness. Then you just deliver yourself to the restaurant and the food is ready to be served as soon as you sit down. You can add a tip in-app or on the table.

Uber Eats should obviously make it easy for you to hail an Uber with the restaurant as the pre-set destination. An Uber spokesperson called that a good idea but not something it’s doing yet. Back in 2016, Uber tried a merchant-sponsored rides option where you’d get a rebate on your travel if you spent money at a given store. You could imagine restaurants that want to show off their ambiance giving customers some money back if they come across town to eat there.

Uber Dine In

The new feature could spell trouble for other dine-in apps like Allset that’s been in the business for four years. Users might also opt for Uber Eats Dine-In over restaurant reservation apps like OpenTable and Resy. Why waste time waiting to order and for your food to be cooked when you could just show up as it comes out of the oven?

“I think that more delivery players will be tapping into dine-in space. It’s all about convenience and time saving. But it’s going to be very difficult for them, given their focus on delivery,” Allset CEO Stas Matviyenko said of Uber becoming a competitor. He believes dedicated apps for different modes of dining will succeed. But Uber Eats’ ubiquity and its one-stop-shop model for all your dining needs could make it stickier than a dine-in only app you use less frequently.

UberEatsheader

With Dine-In, Uber could aid restaurants that are empty at the start or end of their open hours. Last year we reported that Uber Eats was giving restaurants prominence in a Featured section of the app to drive up demand if they offered discounts to customers. Similarly, Uber could let restaurants entice more Dine-In customers, especially when foot-traffic was slow, by providing discounts on food or subsidized Uber transportation. Better to knock a dollar or two off an entree if it means filling the restaurant at 5:30 or 9:30 pm.

And now that Uber Eats does delivery, take-out and dine-in, it’d make perfect sense to offer traditional restaurant reservations through the app as well. That would pit it directly against OpenTable, Resy and Yelp. Instead of trying to own a single use case that might only appeal to certain demographics in certain situations, Uber Eats’ strategy is crystallizing: be the app you open whenever you’re hungry.

[Postscript 7pm PT: You could view the minutes typically spent being seated, perusing the menu, and waiting for your food to be served as either “friction” to eliminate for efficiency, or quality time you should spend with your meal mates. Both are valid perspectives, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being given a choice. For some people who eat alone, it could be quite nice to be able to cut down the wait, perhaps encouraging them to dine in public more often. And really, hasn’t Uber always been about “saving” time that could have been spent meaningfully if not for its raw pursuit of delivering convenience?]

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300M-user meme site Imgur raises $20M from Coil to pay creators

Posted by | alan schaaf, Apps, coil, Creators, Crowdfunding, cryptocurrency, eCommerce, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, Imgur, Media, Memes, micropayments, Mobile, Patreon, payments, Recent Funding, Ripple, ripple labs, Social, Startups, TC, xrp | No Comments

Meme creators have never gotten their fair share. Remixed and reshared across the web, their jokes prop up social networks like Instagram and Twitter that pay back none of their ad revenue to artists and comedians. But 300 million monthly user meme and storytelling app Imgur wants to pioneer a way to pay creators per second that people view their content.

Today Imgur announces that it’s raised a $20 million venture equity round from Coil, a micropayment tool for creators that Imgur has agreed to build into its service. Imgur will eventually launch a premium membership with exclusive features and content reserved for Coil subscribers.

Users pay Coil a fixed monthly fee, install its browser extension, the Interledger protocol is used to route assets around, and then Coil pays creators dollars or XRP tokens per second that the subscriber spends consuming their content at a rate of 36 cents per hour. Imgur and Coil will earn a cut too, diversifying the meme network’s revenue beyond ads.

Imgur

“Imgur began in 2009 as a gift to the internet. Over the last 10 years we’ve built one of the largest, most positive online communities, based on our core value to ‘give more than we take’” says Alan Schaaf, founder and CEO of Imgur. The startup bootstrapped for its first five years before raising a $40 million Series A from Andreessen Horowitz and Reddit. It’s grown into the premier place to browse ‘meme dumps’ of 50+ funny images and GIFs, as well as art, science, and inspirational tales. With the same unpersonalized homepage for everyone, it’s fostered a positive community unified by esoteric inside jokes.

While the new round brings in fewer dollars, Schaaf explains that Imgur raised at a valuation that’s “higher than last time. Our investors are happy with the valuation. This is a really exciting strategic partnership.” Coil founder and CEO Stefan Thomas who was formerly the CTO of cryptocurrency company Ripple Labs will join Imgur’s board. Coil received the money it’s investing in Imgur from Ripple Labs’ Xpring Initiative, which aims to fund proliferation of the Ripple XRP ecosystem, though Imgur received US dollars in the funding deal.

Thomas tells me that “There’s no built in business model” as part of the web. Publishers and platforms “either make money with ads or with subscriptions. The problem is that only works when you have huge scale” that can bring along societal problems as we’ve seen with Facebook. Coil will “hopefully offer a third potential business model for the internet and offer a way for creators to get paid.”

Coil Micropayments

Founded last year, Coil’s $5 per month subscription is now in open beta, and it provides extensions for Chrome and Firefox as it tries to get baked into browsers natively. Unlike Patreon where you pick a few creators and choose how much to pay each every month, Coil lets you browse content from as many creators as you want and it pays them appropriately. Sites like Imgur can code in tags to their pages that tell Coil’s Web Monetization API who to send money to.

The challenge for Imgur will be avoiding the cannibalization of its existing content to the detriment of its non-paying users who’ve always known it to be free. “We’re in the business of making the internet better. We do not plan on taking anything away for the community” Schaaf insists. That means it will have to recruit new creators and add bonus features that are reserved for Coil subscribers without making the rest of its 300 million users feel deprived.

It’s surprising thT meme culture hasn’t spawned more dedicated apps. Decade-old Imgur precedes the explosion in popularity of bite-sized internet content. But rather than just host memes like Instagram, Imgur has built its own meme creation tools. If Imgur and Coil can prove users are willing to pay for quick hits of entertainment and creators can be fairly compensated, they could inspire more apps to help content makers turn their passion into a profession…or at least a nice side hustle.

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The real risk of Facebook’s Libra coin is crooked developers

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Cambridge Analytica, cryptocurrency, Developer, Facebook, Facebook Cryptocurrency, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Mobile, Opinion, payments, Policy, Security, Social, TC | No Comments

Everyone’s worried about Mark Zuckerberg controlling the next currency, but I’m more concerned about a crypto Cambridge Analytica.

Today Facebook announced Libra, its forthcoming stablecoin designed to let you shop and send money overseas with almost zero transaction fees. Immediately, critics started harping about the dangers of centralizing control of tomorrow’s money in the hands of a company with a poor track record of privacy and security.

Facebook anticipated this, though, and created a subsidiary called Calibra to run its crypto dealings and keep all transaction data separate from your social data. Facebook shares control of Libra with 27 other Libra Association founding members, and as many as 100 total when the token launches in the first half of 2020. Each member gets just one vote on the Libra council, so Facebook can’t hijack the token’s governance even though it invented it.

With privacy fears and centralized control issues at least somewhat addressed, there’s always the issue of security. Facebook naturally has a huge target on its back for hackers. Not just because Libra could hold so much value to steal, but because plenty of trolls would get off on screwing up Facebook’s currency. That’s why Facebook open-sourced the Libra Blockchain and is offering a prototype in a pre-launch testnet. This developer beta plus a bug bounty program run in partnership with HackerOne is meant to surface all the flaws and vulnerabilities before Libra goes live with real money connected.

Yet that leaves one giant vector for abuse of Libra: the developer platform.

“Essential to the spirit of Libra . . . the Libra Blockchain will be open to everyone: any consumer, developer, or business can use the Libra network, build products on top of it, and add value through their services. Open access ensures low barriers to entry and innovation and encourages healthy competition that benefits consumers,” Facebook explained in its white paper and Libra launch documents. It’s even building a whole coding language called Move for making Libra apps.

Apparently Facebook has already forgotten how allowing anyone to build on the Facebook app platform and its low barriers to “innovation” are exactly what opened the door for Cambridge Analytica to hijack 87 million people’s personal data and use it for political ad targeting.

But in this case, it won’t be users’ interests and birthdays that get grabbed. It could be hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of Libra currency that’s stolen. A shady developer could build a wallet that just cleans out a user’s account or funnels their coins to the wrong recipient, mines their purchase history for marketing data or uses them to launder money. Digital risks become a lot less abstract when real-world assets are at stake.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook raced to lock down its app platform, restrict APIs, more heavily vet new developers and audit ones that look shady. So you’d imagine the Libra Association would be planning to thoroughly scrutinize any developer trying to build a Libra wallet, exchange or other related app, right? “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil surprisingly told me. “The minute that you start limiting it is the minute you start walking back to the system you have today with a closed ecosystem and a smaller number of competitors, and you start to see fees rise.”

That translates to “the minute we start responsibly verifying Libra app developers, things start to get expensive, complicated or agitating to cryptocurrency purists. That might hurt growth and adoption.” You know what will hurt growth of Libra a lot worse? A sob story about some migrant family or a small business getting all their Libra stolen. And that blame is going to land squarely on Facebook, not some amorphous Libra Association.

Image via Getty Images / alashi

Inevitably, some unsavvy users won’t understand the difference between Facebook’s own wallet app Calibra and any other app built for the currency. “Libra is Facebook’s cryptocurrency. They wouldn’t let me get robbed,” some will surely say. And on Calibra they’d be right. It’s a custodial wallet that will refund you if your Libra are stolen and it offers 24/7 customer support via chat to help you regain access to your account.

Yet the Libra Blockchain itself is irreversible. Outside of custodial wallets like Calibra, there’s no getting your stolen or mis-sent money back. There’s likely no customer support. And there are plenty of crooked crypto developers happy to prey on the inexperienced. Indeed, $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency was stolen last year alone, according to CypherTrace via CNBC. “As with anything, there’s fraud and there are scams in the existing financial ecosystem today . . .  that’s going to be true of Libra too. There’s nothing special or magical that prevents that,” says Weil, who concluded “I think those pros massively outweigh the cons.”

Until now, the blockchain world was mostly inhabited by technologists, except for when skyrocketing values convinced average citizens to invest in Bitcoin just before prices crashed. Now Facebook wants to bring its family of apps’ 2.7 billion users into the world of cryptocurrency. That’s deeply worrisome.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Regulators are already bristling, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown tweeted that “We cannot allow Facebook to run a risky new cryptocurrency out of a Swiss bank account without oversight.” And French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Europe 1 radio that Libra can’t be allowed to “become a sovereign currency.”

Most harshly, Rep. Maxine Waters issued a statement saying, “Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

Yet Facebook has just one vote in controlling the currency, and the Libra Association preempted these criticisms, writing, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

That’s why as lawmakers confer about how to regulate Libra, I hope they remember what triggered the last round of Facebook execs having to appear before Congress and Parliament. A totally open, unvetted Libra developer platform in the name of “innovation” over safety is a ticking time bomb. Governments should insist the Libra Association thoroughly audit developers and maintain the power to ban bad actors. In this strange new crypto world, the public can’t be expected to perfectly protect itself from Cambridge Analytica 2.$.

Get up to speed on Facebook’s Libra with this handy guide:

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Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, coinbase, cryptocurrency, Developer, eBay, eCommerce, Facebook, Farfetch, Finance, funding, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Lyft, Mobile, Move coding language, payments, PayPal, Policy, privacy, Ribbit Capital, Social, Spotify, stablecoin, stripe, TC, Thrive Capital, Uber, Union Square Ventures, visa | No Comments

Facebook has finally revealed the details of its cryptocurrency, Libra, which will let you buy things or send money to people with nearly zero fees. You’ll pseudonymously buy or cash out your Libra online or at local exchange points like grocery stores, and spend it using interoperable third-party wallet apps or Facebook’s own Calibra wallet that will be built into WhatsApp, Messenger and its own app. Today Facebook released its white paper explaining Libra and its testnet for working out the kinks of its blockchain system before a public launch in the first half of 2020.

Facebook won’t fully control Libra, but instead get just a single vote in its governance like other founding members of the Libra Association, including Visa, Uber and Andreessen Horowitz, which have invested at least $10 million each into the project’s operations. The association will promote the open-sourced Libra Blockchain and developer platform with its own Move programming language, plus sign up businesses to accept Libra for payment and even give customers discounts or rewards.

Facebook is launching a subsidiary company also called Calibra that handles its crypto dealings and protects users’ privacy by never mingling your Libra payments with your Facebook data so it can’t be used for ad targeting. Your real identity won’t be tied to your publicly visible transactions. But Facebook/Calibra and other founding members of the Libra Association will earn interest on the money users cash in that is held in reserve to keep the value of Libra stable.

Facebook’s audacious bid to create a global digital currency that promotes financial inclusion for the unbanked actually has more privacy and decentralization built in than many expected. Instead of trying to dominate Libra’s future or squeeze tons of cash out of it immediately, Facebook is instead playing the long-game by pulling payments into its online domain. Facebook’s VP of blockchain, David Marcus, explained the company’s motive and the tie-in with its core revenue source during a briefing at San Francisco’s historic Mint building. “If more commerce happens, then more small businesses will sell more on and off platform, and they’ll want to buy more ads on the platform so it will be good for our ads business.”

The risk and reward of building the new PayPal

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

Yet existing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars, and the experience of buying and spending them is easy enough for a mainstream audience. But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

Now Facebook wants to make Libra the evolution of PayPal . It’s hoping Libra will become simpler to set up, more ubiquitous as a payment method, more efficient with fewer fees, more accessible to the unbanked, more flexible thanks to developers and more long-lasting through decentralization.

“Success will mean that a person working abroad has a fast and simple way to send money to family back home, and a college student can pay their rent as easily as they can buy a coffee,” Facebook writes in its Libra documentation. That would be a big improvement on today, when you’re stuck paying rent in insecure checks while exploitative remittance services charge an average of 7% to send money abroad, taking $50 billion from users annually. Libra could also power tiny microtransactions worth just a few cents that are infeasible with credit card fees attached, or replace your pre-paid transit pass.

…Or it could be globally ignored by consumers who see it as too much hassle for too little reward, or too unfamiliar and limited in use to pull them into the modern financial landscape. Facebook has built a reputation for over-engineered, underused products. It will need all the help it can get if wants to replace what’s already in our pockets.

How does Libra work?

By now you know the basics of Libra. Cash in a local currency, get Libra, spend them like dollars without big transaction fees or your real name attached, cash them out whenever you want. Feel free to stop reading and share this article if that’s all you care about. But the underlying technology, the association that governs it, the wallets you’ll use and the way payments work all have a huge amount of fascinating detail to them. Facebook has released more than 100 pages of documentation on Libra and Calibra, and we’ve pulled out the most important facts. Let’s dive in.

The Libra Association — crypto’s new oligarchy

Facebook knew people wouldn’t trust it to wholly steer the cryptocurrency they use, and it also wanted help to spur adoption. So the social network recruited the founding members of the Libra Association, a not-for-profit which oversees the development of the token, the reserve of real-world assets that gives it value and the governance rules of the blockchain. “If we were controlling it, very few people would want to jump on and make it theirs,” says Marcus.

Each founding member paid a minimum of $10 million to join and optionally become a validator node operator (more on that later), gain one vote in the Libra Association council and be entitled to a share (proportionate to their investment) of the dividends from interest earned on the Libra reserve into which users pay fiat currency to receive Libra.

The 28 soon-to-be founding members of the association and their industries, previously reported by The Block’s Frank Chaparro, include:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Mercado Pago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
  • Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Union Square Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

Facebook says it hopes to reach 100 founding members before the official Libra launch and it’s open to anyone that meets the requirements, including direct competitors like Google or Twitter. The Libra Association is based in Geneva, Switzerland and will meet biannually. The country was chosen for its neutral status and strong support for financial innovation including blockchain technology.

Libra governance — who gets a vote

To join the association, members must have a half rack of server space, a 100Mbps or above dedicated internet connection, a full-time site reliability engineer and enterprise-grade security. Businesses must hit two of three thresholds of a $1 billion USD market value or $500 million in customer balances, reach 20 million people a year and/or be recognized as a top 100 industry leader by a group like Interbrand Global or the S&P.

Crypto-focused investors must have more than $1 billion in assets under management, while Blockchain businesses must have been in business for a year, have enterprise-grade security and privacy and custody or staking greater than $100 million in assets. And only up to one-third of founding members can by crypto-related businesses or individually invited exceptions. Facebook also accepts research organizations like universities, and nonprofits fulfilling three of four qualities, including working on financial inclusion for more than five years, multi-national reach to lots of users, a top 100 designation by Charity Navigator or something like it and/or $50 million in budget.

The Libra Association will be responsible for recruiting more founding members to act as validator nodes for the blockchain, fundraising to jump-start the ecosystem, designing incentive programs to reward early adopters and doling out social impact grants. A council with a representative from each member will help choose the association’s managing director, who will appoint an executive team and elect a board of five to 19 top representatives.

Each member, including Facebook/Calibra, will only get up to one vote or 1% of the total vote (whichever is larger) in the Libra Association council. This provides a level of decentralization that protects against Facebook or any other player hijacking Libra for its own gain. By avoiding sole ownership and dominion over Libra, Facebook could avoid extra scrutiny from regulators who are already investigating it for a sea of privacy abuses as well as potentially anti-competitive behavior. In an attempt to preempt criticism from lawmakers, the Libra Association writes, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

The Libra currency — a stablecoin

A Libra is a unit of the Libra cryptocurrency that’s represented by a three wavy horizontal line unicode character ≋ like the dollar is represented by $. The value of a Libra is meant to stay largely stable, so it’s a good medium of exchange, as merchants can be confident they won’t be paid a Libra today that’s then worth less tomorrow. The Libra’s value is tied to a basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities for a slew of historically stable international currencies, including the dollar, pound, euro, Swiss franc and yen. The Libra Association maintains this basket of assets and can change the balance of its composition if necessary to offset major price fluctuations in any one foreign currency so that the value of a Libra stays consistent.

The name Libra comes from the word for a Roman unit of weight measure. It’s trying to invoke a sense of financial freedom by playing on the French stem “Lib,” meaning free.

The Libra Association is still hammering out the exact start value for the Libra, but it’s meant to be somewhere close to the value of a dollar, euro or pound so it’s easy to conceptualize. That way, a gallon of milk in the U.S. might cost 3 to 4 Libra, similar but not exactly the same as with dollars.

The idea is that you’ll cash in some money and keep a balance of Libra that you can spend at accepting merchants and online services. You’ll be able to trade in your local currency for Libra and vice versa through certain wallet apps, including Facebook’s Calibra, third-party wallet apps and local resellers like convenience or grocery stores where people already go to top-up their mobile data plan.

The Libra Reserve — one for one

Each time someone cashes in a dollar or their respective local currency, that money goes into the Libra Reserve and an equivalent value of Libra is minted and doled out to that person. If someone cashes out from the Libra Association, the Libra they give back are destroyed/burned and they receive the equivalent value in their local currency back. That means there’s always 100% of the value of the Libra in circulation, collateralized with real-world assets in the Libra Reserve. It never runs fractional. And unliked “pegged” stable coins that are tied to a single currency like the USD, Libra maintains its own value — though that should cash out to roughly the same amount of a given currency over time.

When Libra Association members join and pay their $10 million minimum, they receive Libra Investment Tokens. Their share of the total tokens translates into the proportion of the dividend they earn off of interest on assets in the reserve. Those dividends are only paid out after Libra Association uses interest to pay for operating expenses, investments in the ecosystem, engineering research and grants to nonprofits and other organizations. This interest is part of what attracted the Libra Association’s members. If Libra becomes popular and many people carry a large balance of the currency, the reserve will grow huge and earn significant interest.

The Libra Blockchain — built for speed

Every Libra payment is permanently written into the Libra Blockchain — a cryptographically authenticated database that acts as a public online ledger designed to handle 1,000 transactions per second. That would be much faster than Bitcoin’s 7 transactions per second or Ethereum’s 15. The blockchain is operated and constantly verified by founding members of the Libra Association, which each invested $10 million or more for a say in the cryptocurrency’s governance and the ability to operate a validator node.

When a transaction is submitted, each of the nodes runs a calculation based on the existing ledger of all transactions. Thanks to a Byzantine Fault Tolerance system, just two-thirds of the nodes must come to consensus that the transaction is legitimate for it to be executed and written to the blockchain. A structure of Merkle Trees in the code makes it simple to recognize changes made to the Libra Blockchain. With 5KB transactions, 1,000 verifications per second on commodity CPUs and up to 4 billion accounts, the Libra Blockchain should be able to operate at 1,000 transactions per second if nodes use at least 40Mbps connections and 16TB SSD hard drives.

Transactions on Libra cannot be reversed. If an attack compromises over one-third of the validator nodes causing a fork in the blockchain, the Libra Association says it will temporarily halt transactions, figure out the extent of the damage and recommend software updates to resolve the fork.

Transactions aren’t entirely free. They incur a tiny fraction of a cent fee to pay for “gas” that covers the cost of processing the transfer of funds similar to with Ethereum. This fee will be negligible to most consumers, but when they add up, the gas charges will deter bad actors from creating millions of transactions to power spam and denial-of-service attacks. “We’ve purposely tried not to innovate massively on the blockchain itself because we want it to be scalable and secure,” says Marcus of piggybacking on the best elements of existing cryptocurrencies.

Currently, the Libra Blockchain is what’s known as “permissioned,” where only entities that fulfill certain requirements are admitted to a special in-group that defines consensus and controls governance of the blockchain. The problem is this structure is more vulnerable to attacks and censorship because it’s not truly decentralized. But during Facebook’s research, it couldn’t find a reliable permissionless structure that could securely scale to the number of transactions Libra will need to handle. Adding more nodes slows things down, and no one has proven a way to avoid that without compromising security.

That’s why the Libra Association’s goal is to move to a permissionless system based on proof-of-stake that will protect against attacks by distributing control, encourage competition and lower the barrier to entry. It wants to have at least 20% of votes in the Libra Association council coming from node operators based on their total Libra holdings instead of their status as a founding member. That plan should help appease blockchain purists who won’t be satisfied until Libra is completely decentralized.

Move coding language — for moving Libra

The Libra Blockchain is open source with an Apache 2.0 license, and any developer can build apps that work with it using the Move coding language. The blockchain’s prototype launches its testnet today, so it’s effectively in developer beta mode until it officially launches in the first half of 2020. The Libra Association is working with HackerOne to launch a bug bounty system later this year that will pay security researchers for safely identifying flaws and glitches. In the meantime, the Libra Association is implementing the Libra Core using the Rust programming language because it’s designed to prevent security vulnerabilities, and the Move language isn’t fully ready yet.

Move was created to make it easier to write blockchain code that follows an author’s intent without introducing bugs. It’s called Move because its primary function is to move Libra coins from one account to another, and never let those assets be accidentally duplicated. The core transaction code looks like: LibraAccount.pay_from_sender(recipient_address, amount) procedure.

Eventually, Move developers will be able to create smart contracts for programmatic interactions with the Libra Blockchain. Until Move is ready, developers can create modules and transaction scripts for Libra using Move IR, which is high-level enough to be human-readable but low-level enough to be translatable into real Move bytecode that’s written to the blockchain.

The Libra ecosystem and the Move language will be completely open to use and build, which presents a sizable risk. Crooked developers could prey on crypto novices, claiming their app works just the same as legitimate ones, and that it’s safe because it uses Libra. But if consumers get ripped off by these scammers, the anger will surely bubble up to Facebook. Yet still, Calibra’s head of product tells me, “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me.

Even though it’s tried to distance itself sufficiently via its subsidiary Libra and the association, many people will probably always think of Libra as Facebook’s cryptocurrency and blame it for their woes.

Read our full story on the dangers of Libra’s unvetted developer platform

Libra incentives — rewarding early businesses

The Libra Association wants to encourage more developers and merchants to work with its cryptocurrency. That’s why it plans to issue incentives, possibly Libra coins, to validator node operators who can get people signed up for and using Libra. Wallets that pull users through the Know Your Customer anti-fraud and money laundering process or that keep users sufficiently active for over a year will be rewarded. For each transaction they process, merchants will also receive a percentage of the transaction back.

Businesses that earn these incentives can keep them, or pass some or all of them along to users in the form of free Libra tokens or discounts on their purchases. This could create competition between wallets to see which can pass on the most rewards to their customers, and thereby attract the most users. You could imagine eBay or Spotify giving you a discount for paying in Libra, while wallet developers might offer you free tokens if you complete 100 transactions within a year.

“One challenge for Spotify and its users around the world has been the lack of easily accessible payment systems – especially for those in financially underserved markets,” Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström writes. “In joining the Libra Association, there is an opportunity to better reach Spotify’s total addressable market, eliminate friction and enable payments in mass scale.”

This savvy incentive system should massively help ratchet up Libra’s user count without dictating how businesses balance their margins versus growth. Facebook also has another plan to grow its developer ecosystem. By offering venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures a portion of the reserve interest, they’re motivating to fund startups building Libra infrastructure.

Using Libra

So how do you actually own and spend Libra? Through Libra wallets like Facebook’s own Calibra and others that will be built by third-parties, potentially including Libra Association members like PayPal. The idea is to make sending money to a friend or paying for something as easy as sending a Facebook Message. You won’t be able to make or receive any real payments until the official launch next year, though, but you can sign up for early access when it’s ready here.

None of the Libra Association members agreed to provide details on what exactly they’ll build on the blockchain, but we can take Facebook’s Calibra wallet as an example of the basic experience. Calibra will launch alongside the Libra currency on iOS and Android within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and a standalone app. When users first sign up, they’ll be taken through a Know Your Customer anti-fraud process where they’ll have to provide a government-issued photo ID and other verification info. They’ll need to conduct due diligence on customers and report suspicious activity to the authorities.

From there you’ll be able to cash in to Libra, pick a friend or merchant, set an amount to send them and add a description and send them Libra. You’ll also be able to request Libra, and Calibra will offer an expedited way of paying merchants by scanning your or their QR code. Eventually it wants to offer in-store payments and integrations with point-of-sale systems like Square.

The Libra Association’s e-commerce members seem particularly excited about how the token could eliminate transaction fees and speed up checkout. “We believe blockchain will benefit the luxury industry by improving IP protection, transparency in the product life cycle and — as in the case of Libra — enable global frictionless e-commerce,” says FarFetch CEO Jose Neves.

Privacy — at least from Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained some of the philosophy behind Libra and Calibra in a post today. “It’s decentralized — meaning it’s run by many different organizations instead of just one, making the system fairer overall. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection and has low fees and costs. And it’s secured by cryptography which helps keep your money safe. This is an important part of our vision for a privacy-focused social platform — where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately, from messaging to secure payments.”

By default, Facebook won’t import your contacts or any of your profile information, but may ask if you wish to do so. It also won’t share any of your transaction data back to Facebook, so it won’t be used to target you with ads, rank your News Feed, or otherwise earn Facebook money directly. Data will only be shared in specific instances in anonymized ways for research or adoption measurement, for hunting down fraudsters or due to a request from law enforcement. And you don’t even need a Facebook or WhatsApp account to sign up for Calibra or to use Libra.

“We realize people don’t want their social data and financial data commingled,” says Marcus, who’s now head of Calibra. “The reality is we’ll have plenty of wallets that will compete with us and many of them will not be in social, and if we want to successfully win people’s trust, we have to make sure the data will be separated.”

In case you are hacked, scammed or lose access to your account, Calibra will refund you for lost coins when possible through 24/7 chat support because it’s a custodial wallet. You also won’t have to remember any long, complex crypto passwords you could forget and get locked out from your money, as Calibra manages all your keys for you. Given Calibra will likely become the default wallet for many Libra users, this extra protection and smoother user experience is essential.

For now, Calibra won’t make money. But Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me that if it reaches scale, Facebook could launch other financial tools through Calibra that it could monetize, such as investing or lending. “In time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, such as paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass,” the Calibra team writes. That makes it start to sound a lot like China’s everything app WeChat.

A global coin

Facebook got one thing right for sure: Today’s money doesn’t work for everyone. Those of us living comfortably in developed nations likely don’t see the hardships that befall migrant workers or the unbanked abroad. Preyed on by greedy payday lenders and high-fee remittance services, targeted by muggers and left out of traditional financial services, the poor get poorer. Libra has the potential to get more money from working parents back to their families and help people retain credit even if they’re robbed of their physical possessions. That would do more to accomplish Facebook’s mission of making the world feel smaller than all the News Feed Likes combined.

If Facebook succeeds and legions of people cash in money for Libra, it and the other founding members of the Libra Association could earn big dividends on the interest. And if suddenly it becomes super quick to buy things through Facebook using Libra, businesses will boost their ad spend there. But if Libra gets hacked or proves unreliable, it could cost lots of people around the world money while souring them on cryptocurrencies. And by offering an open Libra platform, shady developers could build apps that snatch not just people’s personal info like Cambridge Analytica, but their hard-earned digital cash.

Facebook just tried to reinvent money. Next year, we’ll see if the Libra Association can pull it off. It took me 4,000 words to explain Libra, but at least now you can make up your own mind about whether to be scared of Facebook crypto.

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The Ticket Fairy is tech’s best hope against Ticketmaster

Posted by | concerts, eCommerce, Enterprise, Entertainment, eventbrite, funding, Fundings & Exits, live music, Mobile, payments, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, The Ticket Fairy, ticketing, TicketMaster | No Comments

Ticketmaster’s dominance has led to ridiculous service fees, scalpers galore and exclusive contracts that exploit venues and artists. The moronic approval of venue operator and artist management giant Live Nation’s merger with Ticketmaster in 2010 produced an anti-competitive juggernaut. It pressures venues to sign ticketing contracts under veiled threat that artists would otherwise be routed to different concert halls. Now it’s become difficult for venues, artists and fans to avoid Ticketmaster, which charges fees as high as 50% that many see as a ripoff.

The Ticket Fairy wants to wrestle away from Ticketmaster control of venues while giving fans ways to earn tickets for referring their friends. The startup is doing that by offering the most technologically advanced ticketing platform that not only handles sales and check-ins, but acts as a full-stack Salesforce for concerts that can analyze buyers and run ad campaigns while thwarting scalpers. Co-founder Ritesh Patel says The Ticket Fairy has increased revenue for event organizers by 15% to 25% during its private beta focused on dance music festivals.

Now after 850,000 tickets sold, it’s officially launching its ticketing suite and actively poaching venues from Eventbrite as it moves deeper into esports and conventions. With a little more scale, it will be ready to challenge Ticketmaster for lucrative clients.

Ritesh’s combination of product and engineering skills, rapid progress and charismatic passion for live events after throwing 400 of his own has attracted an impressive cadre of angel investors. They’ve delivered a $2.5 million seed round for Ticket Fairy, adding to its $485,000 pre-seed from angels like Twitch/Atrium founder Justin Kan, Twitch COO Kevin Lin and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman.

The new round includes YouTube founder Steve Chen, former Kleiner Perkins partner (and Mark’s sister) Arielle Zuckerberg and funds like 500 Startups, ex-Uber angels Fantastic Ventures, G2 Ventures, Tempo Ventures and WeFunder. It’s also scored music industry angels like Serato DJ hardware CEO AJ Bertenshaw, Spotify’s head of label licensing Niklas Lundberg, and celebrity lawyer Ken Hertz, who reps Will Smith and Gwen Stefani.

“The purpose of starting The Ticket Fairy was not to be another Eventbrite, but to reduce the risk of the person running the event so they can be profitable. We’re not just another shopping cart,” Patel says. The Ticket Fairy charges a comparable rate to Eventbrite’s $1.59 + 3.5% per ticket plus payment processing that brings it closer to 6%, but Patel insists it offers far stronger functionality.

Constantly clad in his golden disco hoodie over a Ticket Fairy t-shirt, Patel lives his product, spending late nights dancing and taking feedback at the events his clients host. He’s been a savior of SXSW the past two years, injecting the aging festival that shuts down at 2am with multi-night after-hours raves. Featuring top DJs like Pretty Lights in creative locations cab drivers don’t believe are real, The Ticket Fairy’s parties have won the hearts of music industry folks.

The Ticket Fairy co-founders. Center and inset left: Ritesh Patel. Inset right: Jigar Patel

Now the Y Combinator startup hopes its ticketing platform will do the same thanks to a slew of savvy features:

  • Earn A Ticket – The Ticket Fairy supercharges word of mouth marketing with a referral system that lets fans get a rebate or full-free ticket if they get enough friends to buy a ticket. Indeed, 30% of ticket buyers are now sharing a Ticket Fairy referral link, and Patel says the return on investment is $30 in revenue for each $1 paid out in rewards, with 10% to 25% of all ticket sales coming from referrals. A public leaderboard further encourages referrals, with those at the top eligible for backstage passes, free merch and bar tabs. And to prevent mass spamming, only buyers, partners and street teamers get a referral code.
  • Creative Payment Options – The startup offers “FreeFund” tickets for free events that otherwise see huge no-show rates. Users pay a small deposit that’s refunded when they scan their ticket for entry, discouraging RSVPs from those who won’t come. Buyers can also pay on layaway with Affirm or LayBuy and then earn a ticket before their debt is due.
  • Anti-Scalping – The Ticket Fairy offers identity-locked tickets that must be presented with the buyer’s ID on arrival, which means customers can’t scalp them. Instead, the startup offers a waitlist for sold-out events, and buyers can sell their tickets back to the company, which then redistributes them to a specific friend or whoever’s at the top of the waitlist at face value with a new QR code. Patel says client SunAndBass Festival hasn’t had a scalped ticket in five years of working with the ticketer.
  • Clever Analytics – Never wasting an opportunity, The Ticket Fairy lets events collect contact info and demand before ticket sales start with its pre-registration system. It can create multiple variants of ticketing sites designed for different demographics, like rock versus dance fans for a festival, track sales and demographics in real time and relay instant stats about check-ins at the door. Integration of email managers like Mailchimp and sales pixels like Facebook plus the ability to instantly retarget people who abandoned their shopping via Facebook Custom Audience ads makes marketing easier. And all the metrics, budgets and expenses are automatically organized into financial reports to eliminate spreadsheet busywork.

Still, the biggest barrier to adoption remains the long exclusive contracts Ticketmaster and other giants like AEG coerce venues into in the U.S. Abroad, venues typically work with multiple ticket promoters who sell from the same pool, which is why 80% of The Ticket Fairy’s business is international right now. In the U.S., ticketing is often handled by a single company, except for the 8% of tickets artists can sell however they want. That’s why The Ticket Fairy has focused on signing up non-traditional venues for festivals, trade convention halls, newly built esports arenas, as well as concert halls.

“Coming from the event promotion background, we understand the risk event organizers take in creating these experiences,” The Ticket Fairy’s co-founder and Ritesh’s brother Jigar Patel explains. “The odds of breaking even are poor and many are unable to overcome those challenges, but it is sheer passion that keeps them going in the face of financial uncertainty and multi-year losses.” As competitors’ contracts expire, The Ticket Fairy hopes to swoop in by dangling its sales-boosting tech. “We get locked out of certain things because people are locked in a contract, not because they don’t want to use our system.”

The live music industry can be brutal, though. Events can have slim margins, organizers are loathe to change their process and it’s a sales-heavy process convincing them to try new software. But while the record business has been redefined by streaming, ticketing looks a lot like it did a decade ago. That makes it ripe for disruption.

“The events industry is more important than ever, with artists making the bulk of their income from touring instead of record sales, and demand from fans for live experiences is increasing at a global level,” Jigar concludes. “When events go out of business, everybody loses, including artists and fans. Everything we do at The Ticket Fairy has that firmly in mind – we are here to keep the ecosystem alive.”

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Facebook plans June 18th cryptocurrency debut. Here’s what we know

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, cryptocurrency, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Blockchain, Facebook Crypto, Mobile, payments, Social, stablecoin, TC | No Comments

Facebook is finally ready to reveal details about its cryptocurrency codenamed Libra. It’s currently scheduled for a June 18th release of a white paper explaining its cryptocurrency’s basics, according to a source who says multiple investors briefed on the project by Facebook were told that date.

Meanwhile, the company’s Head of Financial Services & Payment Partnerships for Northern Europe Laura McCracken told German magazine WirtschaftsWoche‘s Sebastian Kirsch that the white paper would debut June 18th, and that the cryptocurrency would indeed be pegged to a basket of currencies rather than a single one like the US dollar to prevent price fluctuations. Kirsch tells me “I met Laura at Money2020 Europe in Amsterdam on Tuesday” after she watched fellow Facebook payments exec Paulette Rowe’s talk. “She told me that she wasn’t involved in what David Marcus’ [Facebook Blockchain] team was doing. But that I’d have to wait until June 18th when a whitepaper was supposed to be published to get more details.” She told him she thought the date was already a publicly known fact, which it wasn’t.

Then, yesterday TechCrunch received a request for a June 18th news embargo from one of the communications managers for Facebook’s blockchain team. The Information’s Alex Heath and Jon Victor also reported yesterday that Facebook’s cryptocurrency project would launch later this month.

Facebook declined to comment on any news regarding its cryptocurrency project. There is always a chance that the announcement date could fluctuate if snafus with partners or governments arise. One source says Facebook is targeting a 2020 formal launch of the cryptocurrency

The debut of Libra or whatever Facebook decides to call it could unlock a new era of commerce and payments for the social network. It could be used to offer low or no-fee payments between friends or remittance of earnings to familys from migrant workers abroad who are often gouged by money transfer services.

Sidestepping credit card transaction fees could also allow Facebook’s cryptocurrency to offer a cheaper way to pay merchants for traditional ecommerce, or facilitate microtransactions for a la carte news articles or tipping of content creators. And a better understanding of who buys what or which brands or popular could aid Facebook in ad measurement, ranking, and targeting to amplify its core business.

How Facebook’s cryptocurrency works

Here’s what we know about Facebook’s blockchain project:

Name: Facebook will likely use the Libra codename as the public facing name for its cryptocurrency, which The Information reports won’t be called GlobalCoin as the BBC had claimed. Facebook has registed a company called Libra Networks in Switzerland for financial services, Reuters reported. Libra could be a play on the word LIBOR, an abbreviation for the London Inter-bank Offered Rate that’s used as a benchmark interest rate for borrowing between banks. LIBOR is for banks, while Libra is meant to be for the people.

Token: The cryptocurrency will be a stablecoin — a token designed to have a stable price to prevent discrepancies and complications due to price fluctuations during a payment or negotiation process. Facebook has spoken with financial institutions regarding contributing capital to form a $1 billion basket of multiple international fiat currencies and low-risk securities that will serve as collateral to stabilize the price of the coin, The Information reports. Facebook is working with various countries to pre-approve the rollout of the stablecoin.

The head of Facebook’s Blockchain team David Marcus (left) speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2016

Usage: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will be transferrable with zero fees via Facebook products including Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook is working with merchants to accept the token as payment, and may offer sign-up bonuses. The Information also reports Facebook also wants to roll out physical devices for ATMs so users can exchange traditional assets for the cryptocurrency.

Team: Facebook’s blockchain project is overseen by former PayPal President and VP of Facebook Messenger David Marcus. His team includes former Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil, Facebook’s former corporate head of treasury operations Sunita Parasuraman who The Information reports will oversee the token’s treasury, and many elite engineers cherrypicked from Facebook’s ranks. They’ve been working in a dedicated part of Facebook’s headquarters off-limits to other employees to boost secrecy, though the nature of the partnerships needed for launch have led to many leaks.

Governance: Facebook is in talks to create an independent foundation to oversee its cryptocurrency, The Information reports. It’s asking companies to pay $10 million to operate a node that can validate transactions made with its cryptocurrency in exchange for a say in governance of the token. It’s possible that node operators could benefit financially too. By introducing a level of decentralization to the governance of the project, Facebook may be able to avoid regulation related to it holding too much power over a global currency.

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Under-the-radar payments app True Balance just clocked $100M in GMV in India

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, BalanceHero, Flipkart, funding, Google, india, Mobikwik, Mobile, payments, Paytm, Startups, TC, True Balance, Walmart | No Comments

Away from the limelight of urban cities, where an increasingly growing number of firms are fighting for a piece of India’s digital payments market, a South Korean startup’s app is quietly helping millions of Indians pay digitally and enjoy many financial services for the first time.

The app, called True Balance, began its life as a tool to help users easily find their mobile balance, or topping up pre-pay mobile credit. But in its four-year journey, its ambition has significantly grown beyond that. Today, it serves as a digital wallet app that helps users pay their mobile and electricity bills, and it also lets users pay later.

One thing that has not changed for the parent company of True Balance, BalanceHero, which employs less than 200 people, is its consumer focus. It is strictly catering to people in tier-two and tier-three markets — often dubbed as India 2 and India 3 — who have relatively limited access to the internet, and lower financial power. And it remains operational just in India.

Even as India is already the second largest internet market with more than 500 million users, more than half of its population remains offline. In recent years, the nation has become a battleground for Silicon Valley giants and Chinese firms that are increasingly trying to win existing users and bring the rest of the population online.

And like many other companies, BalanceHero’s bet on India is beginning to pay off. The startup told TechCrunch today that it has clocked $100 million in GMV sales and has amassed about 60 million registered users. Yongsung Yoo, a spokesperson for the startup, added that BalanceHero, which has raised $42 million to date, is also nearing profitability.

The South Korean firm’s playbook is different from many other players that are racing to claim a slice of India’s burgeoning digital payments market. True Balance competes with the likes of Paytm, MobiKwik, Google, Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, though its competitors are still largely catering to the urban parts of India.

In the last two years, many firms have begun to explore smaller cities and towns, but their services are still too out-of-the-world for local residents. Raising awareness about digital services is a big challenge in such markets, Yoo said, so the startup is relying on existing users to help others make their first transactions and in paying bills.

Yoo said the startup rewards these “digital agents” with cash back and other benefits. For these digital agents, many of whom do not have a day job, True Balance has emerged as a side project to make extra money.

Later this year, Yoo said the startup, which recently also added support for UPI in its service, will open an e-commerce store on its app and also offer insurance to users. To accelerate its growth and expansion, True Balance is in the final stages of raising between $50 million to $70 million in a new round that it expects to close in July this year, Yoo said.

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