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Lowlights from Zuckerberg’s Libra testimony in Congress – TechCrunch

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“I don’t control Libra” was the central theme of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony today in Congress. The House of Representatives unleashed critiques of his approach to cryptocurrency, privacy, encryption and running a giant corporation during six hours of hearings. Zuckerberg tried to assuage their fears while stoking concerns that if Facebook doesn’t build Libra, the world will end up using China’s version. Yet Facebook won’t stop shaking up society, with Zuckerberg saying its News tab feature will be announced this week.

During the hearing before the House Financial Services Committee that you can watch here, Zuckerberg recommitted to only releasing Libra with full U.S. regulatory approval. But given the tone of the questioning and Zuckerberg’s lack of fresh answers since Facebook’s David Marcus testified about Libra in July, Libra now looks even less likely to launch in 2020.

The hearing started tensely, with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) declaring that “Perhaps you believe that you’re above the law, and it appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company, and are willing to step over anyone, including your competitors, women, people of color, you own users, and even our democracy to get what you want . . . In fact, you have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up.

However, some members of Congress used their time to advocate for American dominance instead of heavy regulation. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) said “the question is, are we going to spend our time trying to devise ways for government planners to centralize and control as to who, when and how innovators can innovate.” Many Republicans complimented Zuckerberg on his business acumen, though none showed outright support for Libra.

With few highlights or positive moments coming from the hearing, here are the major takeaways followed by a chronicle of the top exchanges between Zuckerberg and Congress:

  • Zuckerberg claims China will soon have its own version, so regulators shouldn’t block Libra
  • He’s open to regulators requiring Libra to be majority-backed by the U.S. dollar
  • Zuckerberg would leave inheritance to his children in Libra since it’s backed one-to-one with real currency
  • He wouldn’t commit to blocking anonymous wallets but he’s open to baking more anti-money laundering into Libra’s network
  • Zuckerberg plans to expand verifying users via government ID to battle abuse of Facebook
  • He said Libra partners left because “it’s a risky project and there’s been a lot of scrutiny”
  • Zuckerberg confirmed the Libra Association has abandoned or modified its plan to deal themselves dividends on interest from the Libra reserve
  • Facebook will pull out of Libra if it does something Facebook can’t allow or that it’s prohibited from by regulators
  • Zuckerberg didn’t discuss Facebook’s policy allowing misinformation in political ads with President Trump during their meeting
  • He says Facebook is developing anti-deepfakes technology and a policy about takedowns
  • He repeated his call for more government regulation instead of Facebook making its own rules
  • Facebook will comply with subpoenas for info on discrimination in housing ads
  • Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to trying out the role of Facebook content moderator
  • Facebook plans to announce its upcoming News tab this week
  • Congress’ questions were smarter than a year ago, but still pried little new information on Libra out of Zuckerberg
  • Zuckerberg repeatedly relied on the Libra Association’s independence from Facebook to avoid substantial answers

On Libra versus China

Zuckerberg tried to leverage nationalist sentiment to deflect scrutiny. “As soon as we put forward the white paper around the Libra project, China immediately announced a public private partnership, working with companies . . . to extend the work that they’ve already done with AliPay into a digital Renminbi as part of the Belt and Road Initiative that they have, and they’re planning on launching that in the next few months.” He later said that for Libra, “Chinese companies would be the primary competitors.”

Facebook’s executives have repeatedly leaned on this “let us, or China will” argument we chronicle here.

What if the Libra Association chooses to add the Chinese currency to the basket used to back Libra and reduces the U.S. dollar’s fraction of the basket? “I think it would be completely reasonable for our regulators to try to [implement] a restriction that says that it has to be primarily U.S. dollars,” Zuckerberg responded in one of his most substantial answers of the day. Zuckerberg was receptive to feedback that the Libra Association should keep its white paper updated.

As for why Libra isn’t just backed 100% with the U.S. dollar, Zuckerberg explained that “I think from a U.S. regulatory perspective, it would probably be significantly simpler. But because we’re trying to build something that can also be a global payment system that works in other places, it may be less welcome in other places if it’s only 100% based on the dollar.” Still, Zuckerberg said he would leave his children their inheritance in Libra because it’s backed one-to-one by the Libra reserve.

On Libra and regulation

Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to blocking anonymous Libra wallets that could facilitate money laundering, only saying Facebook’s own Calibra wallet would have strong identity checks. He did say Libra was exploring whether it could encode “know your customer” protections at the network level instead of relying on developers to build this into their wallets.

On whether Facebook will increasingly seek to verify users’ identities through government ID, Zuckerberg was enthusiastic. “This is an area where I think we are going to do a lot more in the years to come. We started with political ads . . .  over the coming years for anything that people are doing that is sensitive, we’re likely going to increasingly require verification either by government ID or other things so we can have a clear sense of people’s authentic identity.”

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) mentioned this could be a competitive advantage, implying Facebook’s size and resources might allow it to embark on a verification initiative other companies couldn’t.

Calibra Know Your Customer

Facebook has assured regulators that Calibra’s data would be kept separate from the social network. But Facebook said the same when it acquired WhatsApp, then reneged and integrated its data. This time around, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez declared that “we’re going to need to make sure that . . . you learned that you should not lie.”

When pushed on why Libra Association members like Visa, Stripe and eBay left the organization, Zuckerberg admitted, “I think because it’s a risky project and there’s been a lot of scrutiny.” Zuckerberg struck back at finance incumbents, saying “I think that the U.S. financial industry . . . is just frankly behind where it needs to be to innovate and continue American financial leadership going forward.”

In an awkward moment, Zuckerberg could not answer which Libra members were run by women, minorities or LGBTQ+ people. “Is it true that the overwhelming majority of persons associated with this endeavor are white men?,” Rep. Al Green (D-TX) asked. “Congressman, I don’t know off the top of my head,” Zuckerberg responded.

Zuckerberg was criticized for trying to profit and potentially helping money laundering while claiming Libra is designed to help the unbanked. Zuckerberg said the Libra Association “hadn’t nailed down policies” about whether anonymous payments are allowed.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) said “for the richest man in the world to come here and hide behind the poorest people in the world, and say that’s who you’re really trying to help. You’re trying to help those for whom the dollar is not a good currencydrug dealers, terrorists.” Some members of Congress like Sherman chose to use their entire time monologuing instead of actually asking questions. 

Zuckerberg got a chance to clear up a major snafu from Marcus’ testimony, where he said the Libra Association was in contact with the Swiss data regulator, which CNBC reported hadn’t heard from Libra. Zuckerberg explained today that the Libra Association had been in contact with the primary Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority instead. He says Facebook plans to earn money from Libra on ads from small businesses if cheap transactions lead to more e-commerce.

In one revealing exchange, Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) asked if the Libra Association still planned to offer profit incentives by offering dividends based on interest earned on currency in the Libra reserve after expenses are paid. Zuckerberg said the idea had either been “modified or abandoned.”

Screen Shot 2019 10 23 at 11.51.30 AM

The highlighted section detailing how Libra Association members earn dividends on Libra reserve interest has been removed from the Libra whitepaper

Claiming Facebook isn’t Libra

Throughout the testimony, Zuckerberg tried to distance himself and Facebook from the Libra Association’s decision making process. “We might be required to pull out if the Association independently decides to move forward on something that we’re not comfortable with,” Zuckerberg said. That means if Facebook can’t launch Libra, it could still theoretically launch without the social network, though it does most of the engineering heavy-lifting.

The strategy was crystallized by Zuckerberg’s response to whether he could commit to moving Libra’s headquarters from Switzerland to the U.S. “At this point, we do not control the independent Libra Association so I don’t think we can make that decision.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) refuted this position, stating, “Mr. Zuckerberg, Libra is Facebook, and Facebook is you.”

Mark Zuckerberg Hearing In Congress

The Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday October 23, 2019 Washington, D.C. (Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The “we don’t control Libra” argument provides Facebook and Libra an escape hatch from criticism, because any member and even the newly appointed chairperson and board can’t unilaterally control or make promises about its actions.

On misinformation and encryption

Many Congress members remain fixated on Facebook’s recently solidified policy of refusing to submit political ads for fact-checking. Rep Sean Casten (D-IL) asked if in Zuckerberg’s recent meeting with President Trump, “Did anyone discuss the policy change along the exemption of political figures and parties from misinformation prohibition on Facebook?” Zuckerberg responded, “Congressman, that did not come up,” quieting theories that Trump pushed for the policy that would exempt false claims in his ads.

Zuckerberg defended the policy to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), saying “I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad,” but that outside of calls for violence or voter suppression, Facebook thinks it’s best to leave lies in ads from politicians so they can be scrutinized by the press and public. Yet that too heavily leans on the media to scrutinize thousands of ad variants being run as part of multi-hundred-million-dollar political ad campaigns.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) chided Zuckerberg, saying “you’re not working hard enough” to stop the spread of child exploitation imagery online despite Facebook submitting millions of reports. She brought up worries that Facebook moving entirely to encrypted messaging could hide child abusers, and Zuckerberg merely said “I think we work harder than any other company.” He failed to explain how Facebook would continue improving detection through encryption.

Oddly, Zuckerberg was directly confronted about his views on vaccines since Facebook works to hide vaccine hoaxes and avoid recommending groups spreading unverified information about them. “I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to be 100% confident, but my understanding of the scientific consensus is that it is important that people get their vaccines,” Zuckerberg said, defending Facebook’s decision to hide some of this content.

In another strange moment, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) demanded if Facebook had bought blocks of hotel rooms at Trump properties but never used them just to curry favor with the president. Zuckerberg said he’d never heard of that and would be surprised if it was true.

On deepfakes, Zuckerberg confirmed that “I think deepfakes are clearly one of the emerging threats that we need to get in front of and develop policy around to address. We’re currently working on what the policy should be to differentiate between media that has manipulated and been manipulated by AI tools like deepfakes, with the intent to mislead people.” Zuckerberg later said the doctored Nancy Pelosi video should have been flagged sooner, and highlighted Facebook needs a separate deepfakes policy. Yet Facebook’s policy allows politicians’ ads to mislead people, weakening faith that it will properly address this new problem.

Questions about Facebook’s fair practices led Zuckerberg to reiterate his call for regulation, saying “I think we need federal privacy legislation. I think we need data portability legislation. I think clear rules on elections-related content would be helpful too because it’s not clear to me that we want private companies making so many decisions on these important areas by themselves.”

On diversity, discrimination and moderation

Regarding housing discrimination via Facebook ads, Zuckerberg committed to working with regulators to provide information under subpoena, noted Facebook has banned discriminatory housing ads, and said “Nobody wants to redline and I’m sure that was accidental.”

Zuckerberg received his heaviest criticism of the day from Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), who grilled him about not knowing if diverse bankers manage Facebook’s cash or if diverse law firms handle its court cases. She chastised Facebook for a lack of diverse leadership, saying “this is appalling and disgusting to me.” Of COO Sheryl Sandberg, who leads Facebook’s civil rights task force, Beatty said “we know she’s not really civil rights.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies Before The House Financial Services Committee

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 23: Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg testified about Facebook’s proposed cryptocurrency Libra, how his company will handle false and misleading information by political leaders during the 2020 campaign and how it handles its users’ data and privacy. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Some of the day’s most astute questioning came from Congresswoman Katherine Porter (D-CA). She hammered Zuckerberg about Facebook lawyers fighting to avoid liability over data breaches. Then she trapped Zuckerberg on the issue of the mental health harms of being a Facebook content moderator that reviews horrific and graphic violence.

Would you be willing to commit to spending one hour a day for the next year, watching these videos and acting as a content monitor and only accessing the same benefits available to your workers?,” she asked.I’m not sure that would serve our community for me to spend my time,” Zuckerberg said. “What you’re saying is you’re not willing to do it,” she replied.

Facebook will announce news service

There’ll be more major launches from Facebook that could raise questions about its impact on society, Zuckerberg revealed. “Later this week we actually have a big announcement coming up on launching a big initiative around news and journalism, where we’re partnering with a lot of folks to build a new product that’s supporting high-quality journalism.” Facebook plans to launch a News section featuring headlines from top outlets, though only some will be paid.

“I think that there’s an opportunity within Facebook in our services to build a dedicated surface, a tab within the apps for example, where people who really want to see high quality curated news, not just social content . . . I’m looking forward to discussing that in more length in the coming days.” That service is sure to trigger debates about whether Facebook is trustworthy enough to be a formal conduit for news.

Overall, the questioning today was much more intelligent than the vague and easily-Googleable queries launched at Zuckerberg by Congress in April 2018. We had no “Senator, we run ads” moments. Instead, it was Zuckerberg who repeatedly used the separation between Facebook and the Libra Association plus the fact that Libra’s policies are still being defined to avoid giving many substantial answers. Combined with the short five-minute Q&A period per member of Congress, Zuckerberg was often able to just repeat existing talking points.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies Before The House Financial Services Committee

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 23: Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg testified about Facebook’s proposed cryptocurrency Libra, how his company will handle false and misleading information by political leaders during the 2020 campaign and how it handles its users’ data and privacy. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In one of the few lighthearted moments of the day, Rep. Juan Vargas recognized the tough position Zuckerberg has gotten himself into. “It’s good to have someone that’s sturdy and resilient. You’re probably the right person at the right time to take this beating.” Yet Rep. McHenry depressingly concluded that, after six hours, “I’m not sure we’ve learned anything new here.”

The question is what array of Libra and Facebook executives would Congress need to have testify together to get real answers to critical questions about how to keep the two from harming the global economy.

The hearing is ongoing and we’ll continue to update this article with major takeaways.



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Snapcommerce raises $85M to make over your mobile shopping experience – TechCrunch

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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 co-founders Henry Shi and Hussein Fazal, Image courtesy of Snapcommerce

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

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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.

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Twitter Spaces arrives on Android ahead of Clubhouse – TechCrunch

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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.

Some Twitter users on Android had already found their way to Spaces before today’s announcement by way of the Twitter beta app on Google Play.

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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