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Highlights from Facebook’s Libra Senate hearing

Facebook will only build its own Calibra cryptocurrency wallet into Messenger and Whatsapp, and will refuse to embed competing wallets, the head of Calibra David Marcus told the Senate Banking Committee today.

Calibra will be interoperable so users can send money back and forth with other wallets, and Marcus committed to data portability so users can switch entirely to a competitor. But solely embedding Facebook’s own wallet into its leading messaging apps could give the company a sizable advantage over banks, PayPal, Coinbase, or any other potential wallet developer.

Other highlights from the “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” hearing included Marcus saying:

  • The US should “absolutely” lead the world in rule-making for cryptocurrencies
  • “Yes” Libra will comply with all US regulations and not launch until the US lawmakers’ concerns have been answered
  • “You will not have to trust Facebook” because it’s only one of 28 current and potentially 100 or more Libra Association members and it won’t have special privileges
  • “Yes I would” accept his compensation from Facebook in the form of Libra as a show of trust in the currency
  • It is “not the intention at all” for Calibra to sell or directly monetize user data directly, though if it offered additional financial services in partnership with other financial organizations it would ask consent to use their data specifically for those purposes.
  • Facebook’s core revenue model around Libra is that more online commerce will lead businesses to spend more on Facebook ads

But Marcus also didn’t clearly answer some critical questions about Libra and Calibra.

Unanswered Questions

Chairman Crapo asked if Facebook would collect data about transactions made with Calibra that are made on Facebook, such as when users buy products from businesses they discover through Facebook. Marcus instead merely noted that Facebook would still let users pay with credit cards and other mediums as well as Calibra. That means that even though Facebook might not know how much money is in someone’s Calibra wallet or their other transactions, it might know how much the paid and for what if that transaction happens over their social networks.

Senator Tillis asked how much Facebook has invested in the formation of Libra. TechCrunch has also asked specifically how much Facebook has invested in the Libra Investment Token that will earn it a share of interest earned from the fiat currencies in the Libra Reserve. Marcus said Facebook and Calibra hadn’t determined exactly how much it would invest in the project. Marcus also didn’t clearly answer Senator Toomey’s question of why they Libra Association is considered a not-for-profit organization if it will pay out interest to members.

Senator Menendez asked if the Libra Association would freeze the assets if terrorist organizations were identified. Marcus said that Calibra and other custodial wallets that actually hold users’ Libra could do that, and that regulated off-ramps could block them from converting Libra into fiat. Buthis answer underscores that there may be no way for the Libra Association to stop transfers between terrorists’ non-custodial wallets, especially if local governments where those terrorists operate don’t step in.

Perhaps the most worrying moment of the hearing was when Senator Sinema brought up TechCrunch’s article citing that “The real risk of Libra is crooked developers”. There I wrote that Facebook’s VP of product Kevin Weil told me that ““There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers]”, which I believe leaves the door open to a crypto Cambridge Analytica situation where shady developers steal users money, not just their data.

Senator Sinema asked if an Arizonan was scammed out of their Libra by a Pakistani developer via a Thai exchange and a Spanish wallet, would that U.S. citizen be entitled to protection to recuperate their lost funds. Marcus responded that U.S. citizens would likely use American Libra wallets that are subject to protections and that the Libra Association will work to educate users on how to avoid scams. But Sinema stressed that if Libra is designed to assist the poor who are often less educated, they could be especially vulnerable to scammers.

The hearing is ongoing and we’ll continue to update this article with more highlights

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Blackstone is acquiring mobile ad company Vungle

Private equity firm Blackstone just announced that it has reached an agreement to acquire mobile advertising company Vungle.

The companies aren’t disclosing the financial terms, but as part of the transaction, Vungle has also reached a settlement with founder Zain Jaffer, who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company earlier this year.

“As a best-in-class performance marketing platform, Vungle represents a key growth engine for the mobile app ecosystem,” said Blackstone principal Sachin Bavishi in a statement. “Our investment will help deliver on the company’s tremendous growth potential and we look forward to partnering with management to extend Vungle’s strength across mobile gaming and other performance brands.”

Meanwhile, CEO Rick Tallman said the deal will allow the company to “further accelerate Vungle’s mission to be the trusted guide for growth and engagement, transforming how users discover and experience mobile apps.”

Vungle was founded back in 2011, and according to the acquisition release, it’s currently working with 60,000 mobile apps worldwide, serving more than 4 billion video views per month and working with publishers like Rovio, Zynga, Pandora, Microsoft and Scopely.

Jaffer led Vungle as CEO until October 2017, when he was arrested on charges including performing a lewd act upon a child and assault with a deadly weapon. The charges were ultimately dropped, with the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office stating that it “not believe that there was any sexual conduct by Mr. Jaffer that evening,” while “the injuries were the result of Mr. Jaffer being in a state of unconsciousness caused by prescription medication.”

In his lawsuit, Jaffer alleged that after the charges were dropped, “Vungle unfairly and unlawfully sought to destroy my career, blocked my efforts to sell my own shares or transfer shares to family members, and tried to prevent me from purchasing shares in the Company.”

In a statement today, Jaffer said, he is “pleased with the terms of the settlement, which are confidential.” He also commented on the acquisition:

It is extremely gratifying for me to see our early vision, execution and the hard work of so many talented people rewarded like this. From Day 1, Vungle has been at the forefront of the changing advertising landscape. Today, companies of all sizes, and in all industries, are utilizing in-app video ads as an integral part of their customer acquisition strategies.

The acquisition is expected to close later this year. According to Crunchbase, Vungle previously raised more than $25 million from Crosslink Capital, Thomvest Ventures and others.

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

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

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

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

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

Sen. Orin Hatch infamously demanded to know “how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”, to which Zuckerberg smirked, “Senator, we run ads.” If that concept trips up Congress, it’s hard to imagine it grasping a semi-decentralized stablecoin cryptocurrency that took us 4000 words to properly explain, and a 6-minute video just to summarize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below you can read Marcus’ full testimony:

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

Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 855 Plus chip will give mobile gamers a boost

Qualcomm’s got a new flagship chip for phones, and it’s not your typical Snapdragon release. 

The Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus is a (somewhat surprising) mid-year upgrade to the company’s flagship chip, the Snapdragon 855. The performance improvements aren’t huge, and where they do exist, they’ll mostly be of interest to mobile gamers. 

The new chip consists of a slightly overclocked Kryo 485 CPU Prime core, which runs at 2.96GHz — a 4 percent increase over the same chip’s 2.84GHz clock speed in the Snapdragon 855. 

The new Snapdragon 855 Plus chip also has an overclocked Adreno 640 GPU, which, according to Qualcomm, runs 15 percent faster than the one in the Snapdragon 855. 

Finally, the new chip should be better at handling 5G, both in terms of performance and preserving battery life — though I’ve found no difference in specs between the Snapdragon 855 and the 855 Plus. 

The improvements are quite mild and can probably be ignored by most users. They might make a difference in certain type of games which are always hungry for a faster processor. 

In the past year (or two) we’ve seen a rising number of gaming-oriented phones, and the new Snapdragon chip will likely satisfy the demands of that market. For a proper upgrade of the Snapdragon 855, we’ll likely have to wait until the end of the year, which is when Qualcomm typically launches new flagship silicon. 

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Waze now shows road toll prices along your driving route

Navigation app Waze is making getting to where you’re going even easier – or at least more transparent. A new feature rolling out today will show you any tolls along your route, including the actual amount you’re going to pay, across both the U.S. and Canada.

This is above and beyond what you’ll get in most navigation apps, where you might get a visual or text indicator that there is a toll on one of the roads in your path (and you can opt to avoid them if possible) but you won’t know what you’re actually paying. With Waze, you’ll get the amount – sourced from its community of user drivers, rather than direct from the official toll road operators, however, but Waze’s crowd-sourced navigation data often has a leg up on the official source in other cases.

Waze will show you the toll prices up front, too, before the navigation actually gets under way, which is great because that’s when you actually have the opportunity to do something about it, whether it’s scrounging seat cushion change or just choosing to drive a different way.

This will be rolling out beginning today, so keep an eye out if you’re trying to get somewhere in the U.S. or Canada.