Former Coinbase exec is now down with OCC (the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency)

Former Coinbase chief legal officer Brian Brooks has been tapped as the chief operating officer and first deputy comptroller of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, beginning April 1, 2020.

In the role, Brooks will help the OCC in its mission of chartering, regulating and supervising national banks and federal savings associations, along with federal branches and agencies of foreign banks.

Specifically, the chief operating officer is involved with oversight of banking supervision policy, large bank supervision, midsize and community bank supervision, the office of innovation, supervision system and analytical support and systemic risk identification support and specialty supervision.

Nowhere in that word-salad does it mention bitcoin, but it’s likely that cryptocurrencies will be one area where Brooks will spend at least some of his time, given his previous job and areas of expertise.

“Brian Brooks is a strong leader with extensive experience in the financial services sector,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, in a statement. “I look forward to working with him to ensure the stability of our financial system and its ability to foster greater economic growth for the benefit of all Americans.”

Brooks served as the chief legal officer for Coinbase since September 2018, and previously served as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Fannie Mae.

Into Africa: tech leaders weigh in on Jack Dorsey’s planned move to the continent

It’s not every day that the CEO of a large Silicon Valley tech company decides to relocate to a different part of the world in order to learn more about it — particularly a frequently maligned and often overlooked by big-business part.

But Jack Dorsey, the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies (Twitter and Square) is not your typical CEO. Dressed down, bearded, often wearing a wooly hat and speaking in a slow, quiet voice, you might even call Dorsey the anti-CEO. He eschews many of the stereotypical trappings of the executive life and mannerisms in favor of taking silent retreats and traveling to countries like Burma.

In November 2019, Dorsey’s itchy feet took him to Africa, where he visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia on a listening tour. He had meetings at incubators in Lagos and Addis Ababa; and talked to a number of African tech-leaders, including Tayo Oviosu, the CEO of Nigerian payments startup Paga; and Yeli Bademosi, the director of Binance Labs.

And before he departed back for the US, he did something more: he announced that he would return in 2020 to live somewhere on the continent for up to six months.

“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020,” he Tweeted from Ethiopia.

Why Africa?

And where? And when? If you have ever spoken to Dorsey — or more likely read an interview with him — you’ll note that the he can be somewhat oblique. It’s rare that he gives straight answers to straight questions, even if he always responds with something.

So when spokespeople from both Twitter and Square declined to comment on what his plans will be and if they will relate to those two companies, it might be just as likely that they don’t want to disclose anything as they don’t actually know.

But one thing is clear: Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people is one of the last blue oceans for global tech growth (one that not only Dorsey has identified).

To that end, TechCrunch talked to several people from Africa’s tech world to get their thoughts on what he could do, and what bears remembering as the world follows Dorsey’s spotlight.

The state of the market

When you look at year-over-year expansion in VC investment in the region, startup formation and incubators, the African continent is one of the fastest-growing technology markets in the world — even if today, by monetary value, it’s tiny by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

Three of the top destination countries for startup investment — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — collectively surpassed $1 billion in investment for the first time in 2018, with fintech businesses currently receiving the bulk of the capital and dealflow, according to Partech and WeeTracker stats.

By most accounts, Dorsey’s first foot forward last November was to make himself a student of the continent’s innovation scene — but specifically as it relates to fintech (and by association, his affiliation with Square and latterly Bitcoin).

“It was more them listening than anything else. Not just Jack, but the other senior members of his team,” CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani said of Dorsey’s meetings at the incubator.

After acquiring Kenya’s iHub, CcHub is the largest incubator in Africa. Other members of Dorsey’s team who joined him there included Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour.

“[Dorsey] said the main reason [he was in Ethiopia and Africa] was to listen and to learn what’s going on in the region,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma .

Jack Dorsey CcHub Bosun Tijani Damilola Teidi

Dorsey with CcHub’s Bosun Tijani and Damilola Teidi

Over recent years, Nigeria has become Africa’s leader in startup formation, VC, and the entry of big tech players, such as Facebook — which opened an incubator in Lagos in 2018.

Since 2014, the country of 200 million has held the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. This makes it a compelling market for fintech and social media apps.

Twitter in Africa, according to sources, was less of a topic during Jack Dorsey’s meetings with founders and techies. This makes some sense. The service has lower penetration in the region estimated at 7.46%, higher than Instagram but lower than Pinterest — and that essentially means that the business opportunities there are fewer, since the majority of Twitter’s revenues comes from advertising.

“The only concrete thing in all this communication…is he seems to be interested in Bitcoin,” said Tijani.

Markos Lemma had the same takeaway after talking with Dorsey. “I think he’s specifically interested in Bitcoin,” he said.

Crypto

Dorsey’s crypto focus in Africa isn’t such a surprise, given his bullish stance on Bitcoin and blockchain-based technology.

In October, he invested $10 million in CoinList, a startup that facilities and manages token sales. And rather than create its own cryptocurrency, like Facebook’s Libra experiment, Square is using Bitcoin as the basis for its digital-currency strategy. The company added Bitcoin trades to CashApp, its P2P payment and investment product, in 2018 and its Square Crypto effort announced this year aims to “support and promote Bitcoin” through open source development.

A recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review could offer further insight into Dorsey’s crypto Africa vision.

“I think the internet will have a native currency and anything we can do to make that happen we’ll do,” he said in reference to Square’s moves.

“In the long term it will help us be more and more like an internet company where we can launch a product…and the whole world can use it, instead of having to go from market to market, to bank to bank to bank and from regulatory body to regulatory body.”

Square Bitcoin

What Dorsey is describing, in part, is the primary use case for cryptocurrency in Africa — where there remain all kinds of inefficiencies around moving money. The continent’s people pay the highest remittance costs in the world largely due to fragmented (and often inadequate) financial infrastructure and expensive cross-border transaction costs.

By several estimates, Africa is also home to the largest share of the world’s banked and underbanked consumer and SME populations.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

There are hundreds of payments startups across the region looking to move that needle by getting these people on the financial map — and more opportunistically, getting them to use their products.

To be fair, the adoption of digital finance products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions.

A characteristic of successful African fintech products, however, is that their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders. Some of that relates to vastly different regulatory structures and the difficulty in shaping product-market-fit from country to country.

Cryptocurrency’s potential to bypass inefficient or deficient finance structures has been getting attention in Africa.

The last two years saw several ICOs on the continent. One of the largest coin offerings ($7 million) was in 2018 by SureRemit — a startup that launched a crypto-token aimed at Africa’s incoming and intra-country remittance markets.

SureRemit’s CEO, Adeoye Ojo, sees the relevance and timing of Jack Dorsey’s interest in cryptocurrencies on the continent.

“Right now a lot of people and governments in Africa are aware of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, compared to two years ago, and asking questions about how this can be leveraged; what kind of products can we build around this,” Ojo told TechCrunch.

Bitcoin, according to Ojo, is finding utility on the continent. “It has helped people with value transfer significantly. A lot of businesses trying to make payments outside Nigeria…frustrated with access to forex or access to USD, are leveraging Bitcoin to make payments directly to vendors or suppliers in Asia and Europe,” he said.

On business motivations for Dorsey’s move to Africa, “I think he is definitely looking at the opportunity to get more people to adopt payments on Bitcoin, buying Bitcoin with Square here,” Ojo said — based on the collective information he’s followed re Dorsey’s crypto motives and what emerged from Jack’s recent trip. 

Square has yet to launch any services in Africa, but if there is a business purpose to Dorsey’s residency, one could be considering how and if the company has scope for building out services in the region, specifically one based around cryptocurrency.

SureRemit CEO Adeoye Ojo believes Dorsey could also look to establish a unique African Bitcoin exchange.

But Ojo underscored the specific hurdles to cryptocurrency adoption on the continent. The first is regulation. Regulatory reviews on digital-currency use are ongoing in major economies Nigeria and Kenya. South Africa’s Central Bank is considering rules that would limit use of cryptocurrencies for foreign transfers.

“Even if the application for crypto works here, if the regulations that come forward don’t support it, it won’t happen,” said Ojo.

As with other parts of the world, Africa also faces a trust issue on digital currency adoption, he added, due to Bitcoin’s implication in several scams — most notably to defraud millions of Nigerians in the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) ponzi scheme.

“For many Nigerians, their first introduction to Bitcoin was this MMM scam…People have been adopting  mobile money in Africa, but it’s gonna take a bit of market education for them to understand using Bitcoin isn’t just some scam,” he said.

Advice for Dorsey

On where Dorsey should spend time on his return, Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge, thinks Kenya is a must, given its lead as one of the top countries in the world for mobile-money adoption.

“Coming to live in the ecosystem is a good thing…it’s the best way to really understand…and get the nuances of business in Africa,” he said.

Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge

Njoroge, whose Nairobi-based fintech company processes payments in 35 African countries, also suggested Dorsey understand any tech play in Africa requires a long-game commitment, given the infrastructure challenges in the ecosystem compared to others.

On that topic, Ice Addis co-founder Markos Lemma suggested Dorsey provide founders advice on operating around and influencing tech-regulation. “He’s had a lot experience navigating the U.S. and other markets with Twitter and Square. I don’t know any entrepreneur in Ethiopia or other African markets who has that experience navigating and negotiating regulations,” he said.

For all the likelihood Dorsey’s pending move could be motivated by Square and Bitcoin, three of the founders interviewed by TechCrunch — Bosun Tijani, Ken Njoroge, and Markos Lemma — underscored the rise of Twitter in Africa’s civic and political spheres.

Square doesn’t operate in Africa but Twitter is the fourth most used social media app on the continent and sells ads in Africa through partner, Ad Dynamo, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed.

Social Media Stats 2019 Africa“Twitter is quite powerful in Nigeria,” CcHub’s CEO said of the social media platform in the country, which has been plagued by theft of state resources in the hundreds of billions.

“It’s not just a social media platform for Nigeria. It’s changing the dynamics between people with power and those that they’re meant to serve,” Tijani explained.

Twitter (along with Facebook) has also been implicated in Africa’s first (notable) social media political interference campaigns.

“There’s a lot of hate speech and misinformation that’s been showing up on social media,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma. “With [Ethiopia’s] 2020 elections on the horizon, I think it would be important for him to address how Twitter can mitigate that risk.”

Dorsey has faced flak from some analysts and Twitter board members for his planned move outside the U.S., given risks associated with Twitter and the upcoming American election.

So Dorsey’s 2020 Africa move could certainly uncover opportunities for cryptocurrency and Square on the continent.

It could also become a reminder that wherever he travels so too do the complications of his social media company back home.

Into Africa: tech leaders weigh in on Jack Dorsey’s planned move to the continent

It’s not every day that the CEO of a large Silicon Valley tech company decides to relocate to a different part of the world in order to learn more about it — particularly a frequently maligned and often overlooked by big-business part.

But Jack Dorsey, the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies (Twitter and Square) is not your typical CEO. Dressed down, bearded, often wearing a wooly hat and speaking in a slow, quiet voice, you might even call Dorsey the anti-CEO. He eschews many of the stereotypical trappings of the executive life and mannerisms in favor of taking silent retreats and traveling to countries like Burma.

In November 2019, Dorsey’s itchy feet took him to Africa, where he visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia on a listening tour. He had meetings at incubators in Lagos and Addis Ababa; and talked to a number of African tech-leaders, including Tayo Oviosu, the CEO of Nigerian payments startup Paga; and Yeli Bademosi, the director of Binance Labs.

And before he departed back for the US, he did something more: he announced that he would return in 2020 to live somewhere on the continent for up to six months.

“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020,” he Tweeted from Ethiopia.

Why Africa?

And where? And when? If you have ever spoken to Dorsey — or more likely read an interview with him — you’ll note that the he can be somewhat oblique. It’s rare that he gives straight answers to straight questions, even if he always responds with something.

So when spokespeople from both Twitter and Square declined to comment on what his plans will be and if they will relate to those two companies, it might be just as likely that they don’t want to disclose anything as they don’t actually know.

But one thing is clear: Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people is one of the last blue oceans for global tech growth (one that not only Dorsey has identified).

To that end, TechCrunch talked to several people from Africa’s tech world to get their thoughts on what he could do, and what bears remembering as the world follows Dorsey’s spotlight.

The state of the market

When you look at year-over-year expansion in VC investment in the region, startup formation and incubators, the African continent is one of the fastest-growing technology markets in the world — even if today, by monetary value, it’s tiny by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

Three of the top destination countries for startup investment — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — collectively surpassed $1 billion in investment for the first time in 2018, with fintech businesses currently receiving the bulk of the capital and dealflow, according to Partech and WeeTracker stats.

By most accounts, Dorsey’s first foot forward last November was to make himself a student of the continent’s innovation scene — but specifically as it relates to fintech (and by association, his affiliation with Square and latterly Bitcoin).

“It was more them listening than anything else. Not just Jack, but the other senior members of his team,” CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani said of Dorsey’s meetings at the incubator.

After acquiring Kenya’s iHub, CcHub is the largest incubator in Africa. Other members of Dorsey’s team who joined him there included Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour.

“[Dorsey] said the main reason [he was in Ethiopia and Africa] was to listen and to learn what’s going on in the region,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma .

Jack Dorsey CcHub Bosun Tijani Damilola Teidi

Dorsey with CcHub’s Bosun Tijani and Damilola Teidi

Over recent years, Nigeria has become Africa’s leader in startup formation, VC, and the entry of big tech players, such as Facebook — which opened an incubator in Lagos in 2018.

Since 2014, the country of 200 million has held the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. This makes it a compelling market for fintech and social media apps.

Twitter in Africa, according to sources, was less of a topic during Jack Dorsey’s meetings with founders and techies. This makes some sense. The service has lower penetration in the region estimated at 7.46%, higher than Instagram but lower than Pinterest — and that essentially means that the business opportunities there are fewer, since the majority of Twitter’s revenues comes from advertising.

“The only concrete thing in all this communication…is he seems to be interested in Bitcoin,” said Tijani.

Markos Lemma had the same takeaway after talking with Dorsey. “I think he’s specifically interested in Bitcoin,” he said.

Crypto

Dorsey’s crypto focus in Africa isn’t such a surprise, given his bullish stance on Bitcoin and blockchain-based technology.

In October, he invested $10 million in CoinList, a startup that facilities and manages token sales. And rather than create its own cryptocurrency, like Facebook’s Libra experiment, Square is using Bitcoin as the basis for its digital-currency strategy. The company added Bitcoin trades to CashApp, its P2P payment and investment product, in 2018 and its Square Crypto effort announced this year aims to “support and promote Bitcoin” through open source development.

A recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review could offer further insight into Dorsey’s crypto Africa vision.

“I think the internet will have a native currency and anything we can do to make that happen we’ll do,” he said in reference to Square’s moves.

“In the long term it will help us be more and more like an internet company where we can launch a product…and the whole world can use it, instead of having to go from market to market, to bank to bank to bank and from regulatory body to regulatory body.”

Square Bitcoin

What Dorsey is describing, in part, is the primary use case for cryptocurrency in Africa — where there remain all kinds of inefficiencies around moving money. The continent’s people pay the highest remittance costs in the world largely due to fragmented (and often inadequate) financial infrastructure and expensive cross-border transaction costs.

By several estimates, Africa is also home to the largest share of the world’s banked and underbanked consumer and SME populations.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

There are hundreds of payments startups across the region looking to move that needle by getting these people on the financial map — and more opportunistically, getting them to use their products.

To be fair, the adoption of digital finance products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions.

A characteristic of successful African fintech products, however, is that their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders. Some of that relates to vastly different regulatory structures and the difficulty in shaping product-market-fit from country to country.

Cryptocurrency’s potential to bypass inefficient or deficient finance structures has been getting attention in Africa.

The last two years saw several ICOs on the continent. One of the largest coin offerings ($7 million) was in 2018 by SureRemit — a startup that launched a crypto-token aimed at Africa’s incoming and intra-country remittance markets.

SureRemit’s CEO, Adeoye Ojo, sees the relevance and timing of Jack Dorsey’s interest in cryptocurrencies on the continent.

“Right now a lot of people and governments in Africa are aware of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, compared to two years ago, and asking questions about how this can be leveraged; what kind of products can we build around this,” Ojo told TechCrunch.

Bitcoin, according to Ojo, is finding utility on the continent. “It has helped people with value transfer significantly. A lot of businesses trying to make payments outside Nigeria…frustrated with access to forex or access to USD, are leveraging Bitcoin to make payments directly to vendors or suppliers in Asia and Europe,” he said.

On business motivations for Dorsey’s move to Africa, “I think he is definitely looking at the opportunity to get more people to adopt payments on Bitcoin, buying Bitcoin with Square here,” Ojo said — based on the collective information he’s followed re Dorsey’s crypto motives and what emerged from Jack’s recent trip. 

Square has yet to launch any services in Africa, but if there is a business purpose to Dorsey’s residency, one could be considering how and if the company has scope for building out services in the region, specifically one based around cryptocurrency.

SureRemit CEO Adeoye Ojo believes Dorsey could also look to establish a unique African Bitcoin exchange.

But Ojo underscored the specific hurdles to cryptocurrency adoption on the continent. The first is regulation. Regulatory reviews on digital-currency use are ongoing in major economies Nigeria and Kenya. South Africa’s Central Bank is considering rules that would limit use of cryptocurrencies for foreign transfers.

“Even if the application for crypto works here, if the regulations that come forward don’t support it, it won’t happen,” said Ojo.

As with other parts of the world, Africa also faces a trust issue on digital currency adoption, he added, due to Bitcoin’s implication in several scams — most notably to defraud millions of Nigerians in the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) ponzi scheme.

“For many Nigerians, their first introduction to Bitcoin was this MMM scam…People have been adopting  mobile money in Africa, but it’s gonna take a bit of market education for them to understand using Bitcoin isn’t just some scam,” he said.

Advice for Dorsey

On where Dorsey should spend time on his return, Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge, thinks Kenya is a must, given its lead as one of the top countries in the world for mobile-money adoption.

“Coming to live in the ecosystem is a good thing…it’s the best way to really understand…and get the nuances of business in Africa,” he said.

Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge

Njoroge, whose Nairobi-based fintech company processes payments in 35 African countries, also suggested Dorsey understand any tech play in Africa requires a long-game commitment, given the infrastructure challenges in the ecosystem compared to others.

On that topic, Ice Addis co-founder Markos Lemma suggested Dorsey provide founders advice on operating around and influencing tech-regulation. “He’s had a lot experience navigating the U.S. and other markets with Twitter and Square. I don’t know any entrepreneur in Ethiopia or other African markets who has that experience navigating and negotiating regulations,” he said.

For all the likelihood Dorsey’s pending move could be motivated by Square and Bitcoin, three of the founders interviewed by TechCrunch — Bosun Tijani, Ken Njoroge, and Markos Lemma — underscored the rise of Twitter in Africa’s civic and political spheres.

Square doesn’t operate in Africa but Twitter is the fourth most used social media app on the continent and sells ads in Africa through partner, Ad Dynamo, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed.

Social Media Stats 2019 Africa“Twitter is quite powerful in Nigeria,” CcHub’s CEO said of the social media platform in the country, which has been plagued by theft of state resources in the hundreds of billions.

“It’s not just a social media platform for Nigeria. It’s changing the dynamics between people with power and those that they’re meant to serve,” Tijani explained.

Twitter (along with Facebook) has also been implicated in Africa’s first (notable) social media political interference campaigns.

“There’s a lot of hate speech and misinformation that’s been showing up on social media,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma. “With [Ethiopia’s] 2020 elections on the horizon, I think it would be important for him to address how Twitter can mitigate that risk.”

Dorsey has faced flak from some analysts and Twitter board members for his planned move outside the U.S., given risks associated with Twitter and the upcoming American election.

So Dorsey’s 2020 Africa move could certainly uncover opportunities for cryptocurrency and Square on the continent.

It could also become a reminder that wherever he travels so too do the complications of his social media company back home.

As 2019 closes, a look back at what happened to the altcoin boom

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re peeking at what’s gone on in the world of altcoins recently, the other cryptocurrencies aside from bitcoin.

As 2016 came to a close, altcoins like ether and XRP saw their value soar. Toward the end of 2016 through early 2018, bitcoin’s relative share of the aggregate value of all cryptocurrencies fell to about a third.

Since then there’s been a reversal. Bitcoin is not only back over the 50% market share mark, it has effectively doubled its portion of crypto worth over the last two years.

What happened? Why altcoins have struggled isn’t something we can answer with a single data point or chart. But we can highlight a few reasons that help explain what happened. We’ll start with a look at the data and then we’ll highlight three ideas concerning what changed that pushed altcoins down, and bitcoin back up.

Over the past few weeks we’ve spent most of our time digging into IPOs, larger startups, stocks and revenue thresholds. Today we’re expanding our horizons a bit, looking at a market that sits somewhere to the side of our usual public-private divide. We’re having fun!

First words

Let’s start with a few caveats to save tweets.

We all know that comparing the value of a cryptocurrency or token isn’t the only way to stack blockchains against one another. We also also know that comparing market caps isn’t a perfect way to examine the market. And, yes, there’s lots of development work that goes on behind the scenes that doesn’t show up in the data we are going to examine.

That said, we’re nearly 11 years into the bitcoin era. We care a bit more today than we did a half-decade ago about what is, versus what might be.

Comparative worth

From the fine folks over at CoinMarketCap, the following set of data maps the relative value of the major cryptos, with smaller coins aggregated into a shared line:

I know it’s the day after a major holiday, so let’s help out. The big orange area is bitcoin. The 2017-2018 era is the period in which altcoins had their heyday. And since mid-2018 you can see bitcoin recapture most of its lost, relative prominence.

Bearing in mind that the value of bitcoin has traded as high as roughly $20,000 in late 2017, and is worth about $7,400 today, the chart does not merely show bitcoin recovering its former value. But it does show how over the last two years bitcoin’s share of the value of traded cryptos has doubled. Here are the key data points:

  • December 15, 2016, bitcoin share of total crypto market cap: ~86%
  • December 15, 2017, bitcoin share of total crypto market cap: ~55%
  • January 15, 2018, bitcoin share of total crypto market cap: ~33%
  • December 15, 2018, bitcoin share of total crypto market cap: ~55%
  • December 15, 2019, bitcoin share of total crypto market cap: ~66%

More simply, bitcoin’s share of the value of all cryptos held steady above 80% for a very long time. Then in early 2017 that same share began to fall. It continued to slip into the early days of 2018. Since then it recovered first to its December 2017 levels. And this year the relative value of bitcoin rose again, bringing it to twice its lowest ratings.

Why did that happen? Here are three reasons that form a part of the why.

There and back again

For those of you with pie to eat, here’s our arguments upfront. Bitcoin bounced back due to:

  1. The failure of distributed apps to take off in terms of usage, and spend;
  2. The general nonperformance of ICOs;
  3. A fraud-led flight to quality.

What’s worse than Christmas music? Bitcoin Christmas music

The holiday season can be a lot. You might need something to make you feel better. This post doesn’t have it. But it does have some pretty terrible bitcoin Christmas music parodies that you can endure!

Enjoy:

In fact, the same account has made a bunch of similar pieces of musical fanfiction, proving the point that bitcoin fans are like other traders, but with fewer friends.

Take one for the road:

Now go get offline and spend time with someone you love.

Dutch court orders Facebook to ban celebrity crypto scam ads after another lawsuit

A Dutch court has ruled that Facebook can be required to use filter technologies to identify and pre-emptively take down fake ads linked to crypto currency scams that carry the image of a media personality, John de Mol, and other well known celebrities.

The Dutch celerity filed a lawsuit against Facebook in April over the misappropriation of his and other celebrities’ likeness to shill Bitcoin scams via fake ads run on its platform.

In an immediately enforceable preliminary judgement today the court has ordered Facebook to remove all offending ads within five days, and provide data on the accounts running them within a week.

Per the judgement, victims of the crypto scams had reported a total of €1.7 million (~$1.8M) in damages to the Dutch government at the time of the court summons.

The case is similar to a legal action instigated by UK consumer advice personality, Martin Lewis, last year, when he announced defamation proceedings against Facebook — also for misuse of his image in fake ads for crypto scams.

Lewis withdrew the suit at the start of this year after Facebook agreed to apply new measures to tackle the problem: Namely a scam ads report button. It also agreed to provide funding to a UK consumer advice organization to set up a scam advice service.

In the de Mol case the lawsuit was allowed to run its course — resulting in today’s preliminary judgement against Facebook. It’s not yet clear whether the company will appeal but in the wake of the ruling Facebook has said it will bring the scam ads report button to the Dutch market early next month.

In court, the platform giant sought to argue that it could not more proactively remove the Bitcoin scam ads containing celebrity images on the grounds that doing so would breach EU law against general monitoring conditions being placed on Internet platforms.

However the court rejected that argument, citing a recent ruling by Europe’s top court related to platform obligations to remove hate speech, also concluding that the specificity of the requested measures could not be classified as ‘general obligations of supervision’.

It also rejected arguments by Facebook’s lawyers that restricting the fake scam ads would be restricting the freedom of expression of a natural person, or the right to be freely informed — pointing out that the ‘expressions’ involved are aimed at commercial gain, as well as including fraudulent practices.

Facebook also sought to argue it is already doing all it can to identify and take down the fake scam ads — saying too that its screening processes are not perfect. But the court said there’s no requirement for 100% effectiveness for additional proactive measures to be ordered. Its ruling further notes a striking reduction in fake scam ads using de Mol’s image since the lawsuit was announced

Facebook’s argument that it’s just a neutral platform was also rejected, with the court pointing out that its core business is advertising.

It also took the view that requiring Facebook to apply technically complicated measures and extra effort, including in terms of manpower and costs, to more effectively remove offending scam ads is not unreasonable in this context.

The judgement orders Facebook to remove fake scam ads containing celebrity likenesses from Facebook and Instagram within five days of the order — with a penalty of €10k per day that Facebook fails to comply with the order, up to a maximum of €1M (~$1.1M).

The court order also requires that Facebook provides data to the affected celebrity on the accounts that had been misusing their likeness within seven days of the judgement, with a further penalty of €1k per day for failure to comply, up to a maximum of €100k.

Facebook has also been ordered to pay the case costs.

Responding to the judgement in a statement, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

We have just received the ruling and will now look at its implications. We will consider all legal actions, including appeal. Importantly, this ruling does not change our commitment to fighting these types of ads. We cannot stress enough that these types of ads have absolutely no place on Facebook and we remove them when we find them. We take this very seriously and will therefore make our scam ads reporting form available in the Netherlands in early December. This is an additional way to get feedback from people, which in turn helps train our machine learning models. It is in our interest to protect our users from fraudsters and when we find violators we will take action to stop their activity, up to and including taking legal action against them in court.

One legal expert describes the judgement as “pivotal“. Law professor Mireille Hildebrandt told us that it provides for as an alternative legal route for Facebook users to litigate and pursue collective enforcement of European personal data rights. Rather than suing for damages — which entails a high burden of proof.

Injunctions are faster and more effective, Hildebrandt added.

The judgement also raises questions around the burden of proof for demonstrating Facebook has removed scam ads with sufficient (increased) accuracy; and what specific additional measures it might deploy to improve its takedown rate.

Although the introduction of the ‘report scam ad button’ does provide one clear avenue for measuring takedown performance.

The button was finally rolled out to the UK market in July. And while Facebook has talked since the start of this year about ‘envisaging’ introducing it in other markets it hasn’t exactly been proactive in doing so — up til now, with this court order. 

Libra’s critics are missing the forest for the trees

It would be an understatement to say the last few months have been rocky for Libra, Facebook’s proposed stablecoin.

Since its announcement in June, eBay, Mastercard and other members of the cryptocurrency’s elite consortium have jumped ship (many due to direct pressure from legislators), a congressional hearing on Libra turned into an evisceration of Facebook’s data and privacy practices, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard assailed the project’s lack of controls and the Chinese government announced its own competitive digital currency.

Critics, though well-intentioned, are missing the forest for the trees.

In spite of Libra’s well-cataloged risks and unanswered questions, there is a massive opportunity in plain sight for the global financial system; it would be a tragedy to let that opportunity be destroyed on the basis of Facebook’s reputation or Libra’s haphazard go-to-market. 

Governments should heed the lesson of the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1970s and use the idea behind Libra, if not the project itself, in “coopetition” to build a better, more inclusive global financial architecture. 

A few key points to begin: first, Facebook is probably not the right actor to spearhead this initiative.

Mark Zuckerberg promises that Facebook will only be one board member in a governing consortium and that the project will comply with U.S. regulatory demands and privacy standards. But just as the company reneged on its promise not to integrate the encrypted WhatsApp into Facebook’s platform, it’s easy to picture Facebook pushing through standards that benefit itself at consumer expense. While Facebook would be a great platform to distribute Libra, its track record should make constituents uneasy about giving it any control.

Second, global payment systems are outdated and slow, and many businesses have been set up to extract rents from that fact. This burden disproportionately falls on the shoulders of poor consumers. People living paycheck-to-paycheck are forced into high-interest loans to smooth their cash flow due to slow settlement speeds. Immigrants sending money home pay up to 17 percent to move money across borders, costs that take a sizable bite out of some countries’ GDPs. In a ubiquitous currency regime, however, foreign exchange fees would vanish entirely .

China Roundup: Xi’s power on bitcoin, the rise of Alibaba’s new rival

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of the latest events that happened at major Chinese tech companies and what they mean to tech founders and executives around the world.

Alibaba’s nemesis

Alibaba’s new rival is shaking up China’s internet landscape.

This week, four-year-old e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo displaced JD.com to be the fourth-most valuable internet company in the country. Its market capitalization of $47.6 billion on Friday put it just behind e-commerce leader Alibaba, social networking behemoth Tencent and food delivery titan Meituan in China. Baidu, the search equivalent of Google in China, has fallen off the top-three club, ending a decade of unshakable dominance of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (the “BAT”) on the Chinese internet.

The story of Pinduoduo comes down to growing internet penetration and the rise of social commerce. Pinduoduo, which is known for selling ultra-cheap products, is particularly popular with price-sensitive residents in small towns and rural regions, a market relatively underserved by online retail pioneers Alibaba and JD.com . However, Pinduoduo has set about targeting more urban consumers by heavily subsidizing big-ticket items such as iPhones.

Its seamless integration with WeChat, the ubiquitous messaging app owned by Pinduoduo investor Tencent, contributes to adaptability among a less tech-savvy population. WeChat users can access Pinduoduo via the messenger’s built-in lite app, skipping app downloads; they also get deals from group-buying, thus the name Pinduoduo, which means “shop more together” in Chinese.

Earlier this month, Pinduoduo founder and chief executive Colin Huang, a 39-year-old former Google engineer of few words, gave a 45-minute speech at the company’s anniversary, according to a summary published by local tech media Late News. He announced that Pinduoduo has surpassed JD.com in gross merchandise volume, or the total dollar value of goods sold. It’s unclear whether the companies use the same set of metrics for GMV, for instance, whether the figure includes refunded items.

While its rivalry with JD.com is nuanced as both companies are backed by Tencent, Pinduoduo’s competition against Alibaba is more blatant. In his missive to staff, Huang acknowledged that Pinduoduo is “standing on a giant’s shoulders,” hinting at Alibaba’s sheer size. When it comes to fighting the impending battle during the upcoming Single’s Day shopping festival (11/11), the founder sounded poised. “Pinduoduo should not feel pressured. The one who should is our peer.”

Also worth your attention

  • 82% of Chinese adults used digital payments in 2018, up about 5%; among those living in rural China, 72% made transactions via online banking, telephone banking, the point-of-sale system, ATM or other digital channels, said a new report released by the People’s Bank of China. Beijing’s push for rural areas to go cash-free is in part what gives rise to such flourishing e-commerce businesses as Pinduoduo.
  • Few things move the bitcoin market like President Xi Jinping’s endorsement of blockchain. Speaking at a politburo meeting on Thursday, Xi called for China to “take blockchain as an important breakthrough to achieve independence of core technologies” (in Chinese). Bitcoin price soared more than 10% in response. But as industry experts cautioned, when China, where crypto exchanges are banned, speaks of “blockchain” it usually means the encrypted technology that not only undergirds cryptocurrencies but can revolutionize a whole range of sectors like finance, manufacturing and agriculture. Expect all corners of Chinese society to capitalize on the blockchain concept with even greater force.

  • One of China’s most prominent venture investors just closed $352 million for the first fund of his new financial vehicle. JP Gan, a former managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners, recently started Ince Capital Partners with internet veteran and venture investor Steven Hu. Having backed noted companies including Xiaomi, Meituan, Ctrip, Musical.ly, to name just a few, Gan will continue to fund early to growth-stage startups in China’s internet, consumer and artificial intelligence sectors.
  • Smartphone maker Xiaomi hired leading voice recognition expert Daniel Povey. The researcher who was part of the team to develop the widely used open-source speech recognition toolkit Kaldi announced his next move on Twitter. Before this, Povey declined an offer from Facebook after he was fired by John Hopkins University for attempting to break up a student sit-in. He told The Baltimore Sun earlier that he intended to join a Chinese company because “they don’t have American-style social justice warriors” and he would feel “more relaxed among the Chinese.” Many Chinese tech companies have research and development operations in the U.S. including Xiaomi, which set up a U.S. R&D center in 2017 (in Chinese) to deepen collaboration with chipmaking giant Qualcomm.
  • NetEase’s e-learning unit Youdao began trading at $13.50 per ADS in the U.S. on Friday amid increased regulatory scrutiny on Chinese IPOs. Youdao, which operates a suite of popular online educational products from dictionaries to MOOC-style courses, had over 100 million monthly active users by the first half of 2019, shows its prospectus. It’s one of the many attempts by NetEase founder Ding Lei, once China’s richest man back in 2003, to add momentum to his 22-year-old company. These days NetEase makes the bulk of its revenue from video games and ranks only behind Tencent in China’s booming gaming sector. In September, it sold its once-hopeful cross-border e-commerce business Kaola to Alibaba for $2 billion. 

Elliptic banks $23M to shrink crypto risk, eyeing growth in Asia

Crypto means risk. To UK company Elliptic it also means business. The startup has just closed a $23M Series B to step up growth for a crypto risk-management play that involves selling tech and services to help others navigate the choppy darks of cryptocurrencies.

The round was led by financial services and asset management firm SBI Group, a Tokyo-based erstwhile subsidiary of SoftBank . Also joining as a new investor this round is London-based AlbionVC. Existing investors including SignalFire, Octopus Ventures and Santander Innoventures also participated. SBI Group’s Tomoyuki Nii and Ed Lascelles of AlbionVC are also joining Elliptic’s board.

Flush with a sizeable injection of Series B capital, Elliptic is especially targeting business growth at Asia — with a plan to open new offices in Japan and Singapore. It says client revenues in the region have risen 11x over the past two years.

We last spoke to Elliptic back in 2016 when it had just raised a $5M Series A.

The 2013-founded startup began by testing the crypto waters with a storage product before zeroing in on financial compliance as a pain-point worth its time. It went on to develop machine learning tech that screens transactions to identify suspicious patterns and, via them, dubious transactors.

Now it offers an integrated suite of products and services for financial institutions and crypto businesses to screen volumes of crypto-flows that sum to billions of dollars in transactions per day — analyzing them for links to illicit activity such as money laundering, terrorist financing, sanctions evasion, and other financial crimes.

It’s focused on selling anti-money laundering compliance, crypto forensics and cryptocurrency investigation services to the private sector — though has also sold tools direct to law enforcement agencies in the past.

Billions of dollars in financial services terms is of course just a tiny drop in a massive ocean of money movements. And growth in the crypto risk-management space has clearly required more than a little patience, from a startup perspective.

Three years ago Elliptic’s first blockchain analytics product had 10-20 Bitcoin companies as customers. That’s now up to 100+ crypto businesses and financial institutions using its products to shrink their risk of financial crime when dealing with crypto-assets. But the more three than year gap between Elliptic’s Series A and B is notable.

“To date, we’ve focused on product development and assembling the right team as the market has matured. This new funding will help us expand in the right way, namely by making the push into Asia without diluting our focus on the US and EMEA,” says co-founder and CEO James Smith when asked about the gap between financing rounds.

He declines to comment on how far off Elliptic is from achieving breakeven or profitability yet.

“We provide best-in-class transaction monitoring products for crypto-assets, which are trusted by crypto exchanges and financial institutions worldwide,” he adds of its product suite. “Our products are used as key components of larger compliance processes that are designed to minimise money laundering risks.”

With the addition of SBI Group to its investor roster Elliptic gains a strategic partner in Asia to help push what it dubs “bank-grade risk data” at a new wave of established financial institutions it believes are eyeing crypto with growing appetite for risk as larger players wade in.

Larger players like Facebook . Elliptic’s PR name-drops the likes of Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, Line Corporation’s LINK and central bank digital currencies, as markers of a rise in mainstream attention on crypto assets. And it says Series B funds will be used to accelerate product development to support “an emerging class of asset-backed crypto-assets”.

Regulatory attention on crypto — which has been rising globally for years but looks set to zip up several gears now that Facebook has ripped the curtain off of an ambitious global digital currency plan which also has buy-in from a number of other household tech and fintech names — is another claimed feed in for Elliptic’s business. More crypto implies growing risk.

It also points to the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force’s global regulatory framework for crypto-assets as an example of some of the wider risk-based requirements and now wrapped around those dealing in crypto.

The focus on Asia for business expansion is a measure of relative maturity of interest in opportunities around crypto-assets and localized attention to regulation, according to Smith.

“Revenue growth is certainly very strong in this region. We have been working with customers in Asia for a number of years and have seen first-hand how vibrant their crypto-asset ecosystems are. Countries such as Singapore and Japan have developed clear crypto-asset regulatory frameworks, and businesses based in these countries are serious about meeting their compliance obligations,” he says.

“We have also found that traditional financial institutions in Asia are particularly keen to engage with crypto-assets, and we will be working with them as they take their first steps into this new asset class.”

“We believe that crypto-assets will play an increasingly important role in our everyday lives and are shaping the future of banking. Our investment in Elliptic is a further commitment to this belief and to SBI Holding’s appetite to help build the digital asset-related ecosystem,” adds Yoshitaka Kitao, CEO of the SBI Group, in a supporting statement.

“Elliptic’s pioneering approach is enabling the transparency, integrity, and trust necessary for this vision to become reality. We are seeing a growing demand for their services across our portfolio of crypto-assets related companies and view Elliptic as best-placed to meet this considerable opportunity.”

While Elliptic’s business is focused on reducing the risk for other businesses of inadvertently transacting with criminals using crypto to launder money or otherwise shift assets under the legal radar, the proportion of transactions that such illicit activity represents in the Bitcoin space represents a tiny fraction of overall transactions.

“According to our analysis, approximately $1BN in Bitcoin has been spent on the dark web, so far in 2019, on items ranging from narcotics to stolen credit cards. This represents a very small share of all Bitcoin activity — less than 0.5% of Bitcoin payments over this period,” says Smith.

Not that that diminishes the regulatory risk. Nor, therefore, the business opportunity for Elliptic to sell support services to help others avoid touching the hot stuff.

“Crypto money launderers are continually developing new techniques to cover their tracks — from the use of mixers to transacting in privacy coins such as monero,” Smith adds. “We are also constantly innovating to keep pace with this and help our clients to detect money laundering. For example our work with researchers from MIT and IBM demonstrated the application of deep learning techniques to the identification of illicit crypto-asset transactions.”

Citizen Ray: Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio is the wise uncle you wished you had

“I don’t want more success. I don’t want more money.” When most hedge fund managers say something like that to you, you’d be justified in suspecting that they’re giving you their carefully crafted Davos riff.

Because unlike many Silicon Valley billionaires who believe (or sort of believe) in the transcendence of their mission, the motives of the Wall Street titan are often straightforward: it’s about the money, and when the money gets huge, it’s about building a legacy.

But as Ray Dalio looked me in the eyes recently and said those words, I believed in his sincerity. That’s not to say he won’t earn enormous sums more. In fact, last year, the financial press widely reported that Dalio earned in the ten figures thanks to Bridgewater’s flagship Pure Alpha fund posting stellar returns.

But when you spend some time with Dalio and broach the various topics in which he has rarefied expertise, it’s apparent that today, the world’s most famous hedge funder could care less about ascending the ranks of the world’s megarich or in achieving more glory or praise for himself.

Although Dalio has diverse philanthropic interests, he retains a very hands-on role as co-CIO of Bridgewater, where he cuts an imposing figure as a guy with little time for inefficiency or nonsense. But he also wears his heart on his sleeve as he seeks to spread the word about principles-based decision-making and the coming paradigm shift that he says will have a dramatic impact on our economy and the markets.

ray dalio 0119 002

Ray Dalio – American investor, hedge fund manager, and philanthropist. Dalio is the founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Image via Bridgewater Associates

The gospel of hyperrealism

By adhering to the twin pillars of radical transparency and radical truth-telling, Dalio believes that the idea meritocracy that powers Bridgewater can be replicated by the home-gamer. Are some of the specific principles that Bridgewater abides by controversial and harsh (e.g., Beware of the impractical idealist, Don’t expect people to recognize and compensate for their own blind spots, Use “public hangings” to deter bad behavior)? Yes. Does he care if you don’t buy into them? Not really: