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.
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.
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: Calibra will KYC all of its users. But this partnership approach will shift some of liability and responsibility of the complicated and potentially error-prone process of handing out cash in person to other parties, some of which will need to conduct their own KYC processes.
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.
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.
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.
Snapcommerce raises $85M to make over your mobile shopping experience – TechCrunch
People are not only shopping digitally more than ever. They’re also shopping using their mobile phones more than ever.
And for mobile-first companies like Snapcommerce, this is good news.
Snapcommerce, formerly known as SnapTravel, has raised $85 million in what the company is describing as a “Pre-IPO” growth round to help further its mission of “changing the way people shop on their phones.”
The Toronto, Ontario-based startup has built out an AI-driven, vertical-agnostic platform that uses messaging in an effort to personalize the mobile shopping experience and “deliver the best promotional prices.” While it was initially focused on the travel industry, the company is now branching out into other consumer verticals – hence its name change.
Inovia Capital and Lion Capital co-led the new growth round, which included participation from Acrew DCF, Thayer Ventures, Full In Partners as well as existing backers Telstra Ventures and Bee Partners. The financing brings Snapcommerce’s total raised since its 2016 inception to over $100 million. Its last raise — a $7.2 million round from Telstra and NBA star Steph Curry — took place in 2019.
The startup was founded by tech entrepreneurs Hussein Fazal, whose prior company AdParlor grew to $100+ million in revenue, then sold to AdKnowledge back in 2011; and Henry Shi, who previously built uMentioned and worked at Google, where he helped launch YouTube Music Insights, according to previous TechCrunch reporting.
Snapcommerce launched its first, travel-focused product in 2017. It works by using chatbots to interact with customers via messaging apps such as SMS, Facebook and Whatsapp. But the company also has human agents ready to help if people need more assistance, in the past essentially serving as on-demand travel agents.
Its service is not just for hotels and flights, but also to help people book restaurants and activities too.
“Our focus has been on building that personal relationship,” Fazal said. “Many people end up coming back to us when they travel again.” In fact, over 40% of its sales in 2020 came from repeat customers.
Over the years, the company claims to have helped more than 10 million users globally save over $75 million. It expects to cross over $1 billion in total mobile sales this year.
And now it’s ready to branch out into helping consumers save money on goods.
“When shopping, it’s hard to find the right product and even if you do, it’s hard to find a good deal,” he said. “On a desktop, there’s ways around it. But on mobile, it’s virtually impossible.”
The company turned the corner to profitability three months into the pandemic in 2020, seeing a 60% spike in sales in the second half of the year compared to H2 2019, according to CEO Fazal.
It then decided to re-invest its profits to continue growing the business.
“The profitability during the pandemic gave us confidence that we could turn to profitability whenever we needed to and gave us control of our own destiny, which enabled this fundraise,” Fazal told TechCrunch. “The third quarter of 2020 ended up being our greatest quarter ever.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, naturally, only accelerated its growth as more consumers turned to mobile.
“We believe the next wave of power purchasers will be via mobile,” Fazal said. “Some of the new generation don’t even have desktops or laptops, and they spend all their time on their mobile phone and messaging. So we’re able to be at the forefront.”
Snapcommerce has an IPO in its sights although no specific timeline. The company did not reveal its current valuation or hard revenue figures. The company makes money by either marking up prices provided by a merchant or charging the merchant a commission.
Chris Arsenault, partner at Inovia and Snapcommerce lead investor, said his firm “tripled up” on its investment in the startup after witnessing its success in the travel space.
“Other companies out there only care about the transaction, and force consumers to look through several services to see if they got the best price, all the while telling them ‘there’s only 2 seats left,’ ” he told TechCrunch. “We believe that consumers aren’t going to accept that type of pressure-selling in the future. And Snapcommerce’s ability to build trust with its customers and service providers has attracted us to them as they are defining what the future of commerce is going to be like.”
Ultimately, the company plans to use its fresh capital to continue to scale with the goal of streamlining the entire mobile search, purchase and fulfillment process and make finding “the right item at the right price as sending a message to a trusted friend.”
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Square buys majority of Tidal, adds Jay Z to its board in bid to shake up the artist economy – TechCrunch
This morning Square, a fintech company that serves both individuals and companies, announced that it has purchased a majority stake in Tidal, a music streaming service. The deal, worth some $297 million, will Tidal allow artist-partners to keep their ownership in the music company.
Square CEO Jack Dorsey used his other company, Twitter, this morning to explain the deal. Dorsey seemed to expect the transaction to generate skepticism – which it definitely has. In his opening message, he asked a rhetorical question: “Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces?!”
Why indeed. Dorsey’s expectation is that his company can replicate the success of Cash App and other Square products in the world of music. Noting that “new ideas are found at the intersection,” Dorsey argued that the confluence of “music and the economy” is one such point of convergence.
The deal also installs musician and businessperson Jay Z on Square’s board.
Some early reaction to the deal has proved negative. It’s not hard to riff on the seeming-strangeness of Square and Tidal as a pair. And Square has made acquisitions in the past that appeared adjacent and failed to stick. The company bought food-delivery service Caviar in 2014 before selling it to DoorDash in 2019, for example; that Square appears to have made a venture-level return on the transaction is immaterial to the focus argument.
But the bull-case for the Square-Tidal tie-up is easy to make as well. The American fintech just spent a minute fraction of a single percent of its market capitalization on the smaller company, and through its choice to let artists keep their stake, has effectively onboarded a host of ambassadors for its brand.
And Dorsey is not wrong that Square did shake up the commerce game for many offline businesses with its original card reader. Why not take a swing at a part of the economy — music — that has migrated from the physical world to the digital in the past few years, much like small businesses in recent quarters?
Square’s business users, it’s “seller ecosystem,” as it likes to call it, are increasingly digital. In its most recent quarterly earnings report, “in-person only” usage is falling as a percentage of seller gross payment volume (GPV), while “online only” and “omnichannel” GPV are taking up the slack.
Square has a known win in its consumer-focused Cash App service, which reached 36 million monthly actives in December of 2020, up from 24 million in the same period one year prior. You can imagine tie-ups between the music company and the youth-skewing Cash App audience. And having Jay Z at the Square boardroom table will hardly make the company less innovative; he may bring fresh perspective.
And then there’s the question of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, a new form of digital asset that have recently become the cause célèbre of the cryptocurrency community. Given that Square has a growing cryptocurrency business via Cash App, and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into bitcoin itself. If there is space in the market for Square to bring music-based NFTs to its larger consumer user base is an interesting question. If the answer is yes, Square could now be in a leading position to create that market.
Perhaps the Square-Tidal deal won’t generate the future growth that Square imagines. But the deal is cheap, snagging Jay Z as a leader is a win, and it’s hard to win by only playing corporate defense.
Twitter Spaces arrives on Android ahead of Clubhouse – TechCrunch
Twitter announced today it’s opening up its live audio chat rooms, known as Twitter Spaces, to users on Android. Previously, the experience was only open to select users on iOS following the product’s private beta launch in late December 2020. The company says that Android users will only be able to join and talk in Spaces for the time being, but won’t yet be able to start their own.
That added functionality is expected to ship “soon,” Twitter says, without offering an exact timeframe.
The company has been working quickly to iterate on Twitter Spaces in the months since its beta debut, and has been fairly transparent about its roadmap.
Last month, the team developing Twitter Spaces hosted a Space where users were invited to offer feedback, ask questions, and learn about what Twitter had in the works for the product in both the near-term and further down the road. During this live chat, Twitter confirmed that Spaces would arrive on Android in March.
It also promised a fix to how it displays listeners, which has since rolled out.
Other Spaces features are being shared in public as they’re designed and prototyped, including things like titles and descriptions, scheduling options, support for co-hosts and moderators, guest lists, and more. Twitter has also updated the preview card that appears in the timeline and relabeled its “captions” feature to be more accurate, from an accessibility standpoint.
The time frame of some of its new developments — like Android and scheduling options — were being promised in a matter of weeks, not months.
This fast pace has now led Twitter to beat its rival Clubhouse — the app currently leading the “social audio” market — to offer support for Android. Today, Clubhouse remains iOS-only in addition to being invite-only.
It’s also indicative of the resources Twitter is putting into this new product, which was first announced publicly just in November. Clearly, Twitter believes social audio is a market it needs to win.
The company also sees the broader potential for Spaces as being a key part of a larger creator platform now in the works. During its Investor Day last week, Twitter spoke of tying together its new products like Spaces, Newsletters along with a “Super Follow” paid subscription, for example.
It’s now also testing a Twitter “Shopping Card” that would allow users to tweets posts that link directly to product pages via a “Shop” button — a feature that would seem to fall under this new creator focus, as well.
But now, a separate beta app won’t be required — when live Spaces are available, they’ll appear at the top of the Twitter timeline for Android users to join.
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