Facebook’s Libra could launch in January

According to a report from the Financial Times, Facebook-backed cryptocurrency Libra could launch in January. More interestingly, the Libra Association, the consortium created by Facebook, could scale back its ambitions once again.

When it was first unveiled, the Libra cryptocurrency was supposed to be a brand new currency tied to a basket of fiat currencies and securities. Originally, it wouldn’t be based on a single real world currency, but on a mix of multiple currencies.

Many central banks and regulators have been concerned about this vision. That’s why the Libra Association changed course and started working on several single-currency stablecoins.

Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that don’t fluctuate in value against a specific fiat currency. For instance, one unit of a USD-backed stablecoin is always worth one dollar. Libra mentioned USD, EUR, GBP or SGD as base currencies for its various stablecoins.

According to the Financial Times, the Libra Association now plans to launch a single dollar-backed coin. It’ll compete directly with other stablecoins, such as USDC, PAX and Tether (USDT). The Libra Association still plans to roll out other currencies, but it’ll happen at a later time.

Facebook will most likely launch its own Libra wallet at the same time. Originally called Calibra, the Facebook subsidiary has been rebranded to Novi back in May.

In addition to a standalone app that will let you send and receive Libra tokens, you’ll be able to manage your Novi account from Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook expects people to start using Novi for remittance purposes and peer-to-peer payments.

It’s unclear whether other members of the Libra Association also plan to launch their own Libra-based service at the same time. Members include Farfetch, Lyft, Shopify, Spotify and Uber.

India sets rules for commissions, surge pricing for Uber and Ola

Ride-hailing firms such as Ola and Uber can only draw a fee of up to 20% on ride fares in India, New Delhi said in guidelines on Friday, a new setback for the SoftBank-backed firms already struggling to improve their finances in the key overseas market.

The guidelines, which for the first time bring modern-age app-based ride-hailing firms under a regulatory framework in the country, also put a cap on the so-called surge pricing, the fare Uber and Ola charge during hours when their services see peak demands.

According to the guidelines, Ola and Uber — and any other app-operated, ride-hailing firm — can charge a maximum of 1.5 times of the base fare. They can, however, choose to offer their services at 50% of the base fare as well. The rules also state that drivers will not be permitted to work for more than 12 hours in a day, and that the companies need to provide them insurance cover.

Uber and Ola have not previously publicly shared precisely how much they charge their drivers for each ride, but industry estimates show that a driver partner with either of these firms makes up to 74% of the ride fare, after paying taxes. The new guidelines say drivers should get to keep at least 80% of fares.

The cap on the ride fare and implied insurance costs will raise operating costs in India for Uber and Ola, both of which have eliminated jobs in recent months amid the pandemic to trim costs. The South Asian nation, which has attracted many giant international firms in recent years as they look for their next growth market, in the meantime has entered an unprecedented recession.

But not everything about the guidelines will hurt Uber and Ola, both of which had no comment to share on Friday. The rules will enable the companies to offer pooling (shared car) services on private cars, though there is a daily limit of four intra-city rides on such cars, and two weekly inter-city rides.

Ujjwal Chaudhry, an associate partner at Bangalore-based marketing research consulting firm Redseer, said the guidelines by the government will have a mixed impact.

“While it is positive in terms of formalizing the sector as well as increasing the consumer trust on aggregators through improved safety regulations. But, overall the impact of these guidelines on the ecosystem growth are negative as capping surge and platform fee will ultimately lead to reduced earnings for 5 Lac (500,000) drivers (currently on these platforms) and will also lead to increased prices and higher wait times for the 6-8 crore (60 to 80 million) consumers who use it for their mobility and commute needs,” he said in a statement.

The rules also address a range of other factors surrounding a ride. For instance, under no circumstance can the cancellation fee imposed on a rider or driver be more than 10% of the total fare, and the fee cannot exceed 100 Indian rupees, or $1.35. Also, female passengers looking for a pooled service will have the option to share the cab with only female passengers, the rules say. Cab aggregators are also required to establish a control room with round-the-clock operations.

Ola and Uber dominate the app-based ride-hailing market in India. Both the companies claim to lead the market, though SoftBank, a common investor, said recently that Ola had a slight lead over Uber in India.

There’s no ‘hacker house’ geared toward undergraduate women, so they created one of their own

Hacker houses are making a comeback for entrepreneurs as remote work drags on. While founders are adapting to quarantine in style, a group of college women in their 20s aren’t waiting until they are done with undergraduate work to plunge into the lifestyle themselves.

Started by college juniors Coco Sack and Kendall Titus, Womxn Ignite is a house for female and nonbinary college undergraduates studying computer science. The idea was born out of Sack and Titus’s exhaustion with remote school at Yale and Stanford respectively. After too many boring Zoom lectures, they took gap semesters and searched for a productive way to spend their time off.

“There are a lot of [programs] that target younger women to get them into coding in high school, and there [are] a lot of syndicates and founder groups for women late into their careers,” Titus said. “But there was nothing for anyone in the age range of 20 to 25 where you’re trying to find your way, raise your voice and hold your ground.”

So, they started their own program, Womxn Ignite. The duo rented out a wedding resort space in California and searched for other women who would be willing to take a gap year and experience the lifestyle. As over 40% of students consider a gap year, the demand became apparent very fast: Over 500 people applied for a spot in the house and just 20 were chosen.

The program is organized as a live-in incubator. Participants are sorted into teams based on their interest areas and are then pushed to solve a certain problem.

To do so, teams go through a variety of mentor sessions. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Womxn Ignite sets up mentorship sessions from a revolving base of female entrepreneurs. There are also guest speaker talks sprinkled throughout the week for high-profile entrepreneurs, including Melinda Gates and Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd.

At the end of each week, a team gives a presentation on their progress around problem statements, solution, customer validation and product development.

Titus says that the goal is not for everyone to come out with a company, but instead to leave with more people in your network and ideas on how to approach starting your business. One participant is writing a TV show about being a Black woman in tech; another is creating a company meant to make programs like Womxn Ignite easier to launch at scale.

Time in between those sessions is largely spent on team-based collaboration and networking. There are themed dinners and “platonic date nights” where participants are paired up and encouraged to explore the area or do an activity together to get to know one another. On weekends, women are invited to talk about their niche obsessions, whether it’s the ethical concerns of facial recognition or materials at the nanoscale.

Titus and Sack say that they charge no more than $5,000 for entrance into the program, but over half of participants are on scholarships given by unnamed investors.

Diversity of a cohort matters when trying to create a community that will systemically empower women of all backgrounds. The first Womxn Ignite cohort was mostly white, but included Black, LatinX, Middle Eastern and Asian Indian participants. They all came from top-tier schools, including Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth and MIT.

A team photo. Image Credits: Womxn Ignite

The community of women aren’t focused on classic accelerator tropes like demo days or first checks, simply because of the stage of life they are in (the majority will return to school in some capacity). Instead, the program ends with an optional-ask contract: Will each participant dedicate 1% of their annual income for the next five years to a syndicate fund? So far, most have signed yes, the co-founders said.

“That number will hopefully grow,” Titus said. “We’ll have pooled what we can [and] collectively think about how we want to spend and invest to help elevate other female founders like ourselves.”

Clara Schwab, a participant in Womxn Ignite, said that the contract will help women get more involved in venture capital, a male-dominated field, earlier in their careers.

“I don’t know any other environment or situation in which myself and 19 other really talented and smart and ambitious women, who are all interested in tech … we come together and like, discuss such a thing,” she said.

The co-founders plan to host another cohort in February and then focus on building out a digital community for the participants.

No Google-Fitbit merger without human rights remedies, says Amnesty to EU

Human rights NGO, Amnesty International, has written to the EU’s competition regulator calling for Google’s acquisition of wearable maker Fitbit to be blocked — unless meaningful safeguards can be baked in.

The tech giant announced its intent to splash $2.1 billion to acquire Fitbit a year ago but has yet to gain regulatory approval for the deal in the European Union.

In a letter addressed to the blocs competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, Amnesty writes: “The commission must ensure that the merger does not proceed unless the two business enterprises can demonstrate that they have taken adequate account of the human rights risks and implemented strong and meaningful safeguards that prevent and mitigate these risks in the future.”

The letter urges the commission to take heed of an earlier call by a coalition of civil society groups also raising concerns about the merger for “minimum remedies” that regulators must guarantee before any approval.

In a report last year the NGO attacked the business model of Google and Facebook — arguing that the “surveillance giants” enable human rights harm “at a population scale.”

Amnesty warns now that Google is “incentivized to merge and aggregate data across its different platforms” as a consequence of that surveillance-based business model.

“Google’s business model incentivizes the company to continuously seek more data on more people across the online world and into the physical world. The merger with Fitbit is a clear example of this expansionist approach to data extraction, enabling the company to extend its data collection into the health and wearables sector,” it writes. “The sheer scale of the intrusion of Google’s business model into our private lives is an unprecedented interference with our privacy, and in fact has undermined the very essence of privacy.”

We’ve reached out to the commission and Google for a response to Amnesty’s letter. Update: A commission spokesperson confirmed it’s received the letter and said it will reply in due course.

Google’s plan to gobble Fitbit and its health tracking data has been stalled as EU regulators dig into competition concerns. Vestager elected to open an in-depth probe in August, saying she wanted to make sure the deal wouldn’t distort competition by further entrenching Google’s dominance of the online ad market.

The commission has also voiced concerns about the risk of Google locking other wearable device makers out of its Android mobile ecosystem.

However concerns over Google’s plan to gobble up Fitbit range wider than the risk of it getting more market muscle if the deal gets waved through.

Put simply, letting sensitive health data fall into the hands of an advertising giant is a privacy trash fire.

Amnesty International is just the latest rights watcher to call for the merger to be blocked. Privacy campaign groups and the EU’s own data protection advisor have been warning for months against letting the tech giant gobble up sensitive health data.

The commission’s decision to scrutinize the acquisition rather than waiving it through with a cursory look has led Google to make a number of concessions in an attempt to get it cleared — including a pledge not to use Fitbit data for ad targeting and to guarantee support for other wearables makers to operate on Android.

In its letter, Amnesty argues that the “safeguards” Google has offered are not enough.

“The company’s past practice around privacy further heighten the need for strict safeguards,” it warns, pointing to examples such as Google combining data from advertising network DoubleClick after it had acquired that business with personal data collected from its other platforms.

“The European Data Protection Board has recognized the risks of the merger, stating that the “combination and accumulation of sensitive personal data” by Google could entail a “high level of risk” to the rights to privacy and data protection,” it adds.

As well as undermining people’s privacy, Google’s use of algorithms fed with personal data to generate profiles of internet users in order to predict their behavior erodes what Amnesty describes as “the critical principle that all people should enjoy equal access to their human rights.”

“This risk is heightened when profiling is deployed in contexts that touch directly on people’s economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to health where people may suffer unequal treatment based on predictions about their health, and as such must be taken into account in the context of health and fitness data,” it suggests.

“This power of the platforms has not only exacerbated and magnified their rights impacts but has also created a situation in which it is very difficult to hold the companies to account, or for those affected to access an effective remedy,” Amnesty adds, noting that while big tech companies have faced a number of regulatory actions around the world none has so far been able to derail what it calls “the fundamental drivers of the surveillance-based business model.”

So far the commission has stood firm in taking its time to consider the issue in detail.

A series of extensions mean a decision on whether to allow the Google-Fitbit merger may not come until early 2021. Though we understand the bloc’s national competition authorities are meeting to discuss the merger at the start of December so it’s possible a decision could be issued before the end of the year.

Per EU merger law, the commission college takes the final decision — with a requirement to take “utmost account” of the opinion of the member states’ advisory committee (though it’s not legally binding).

So it’s ultimately up to Brussels to determine whether Google-Fitbit gets green lit.

In recent years, competition chief Vestager, who is also EVP for the commission’s digital strategy, has said she favors tighter regulation as a tool for ensuring businesses comply with the EU’s rules, rather than blocking market access or outright bans on certain practices.

She has also voiced opposition to breaking up tech giants, again preferring to advocate for imposing controls on how they can use data as a way to rebalance digital markets.

To date, the commission has never blocked a tech/digital merger (it has in telecoms, where it stepped in in 2016 to block Hutchison’s proposed acquisition of Telefonica UK) though it has had its fingers burnt by big tech’s misleading filings — so has its own reputation to consider above reaching for the usual rubber stamp.

Simultaneously, EU lawmakers are working on a proposal for an ex ante regulation to address competition concerns in digital markets that would put specific rules and obligations on dominant players like Google — again in areas such as data use and data access.

That plan is due to be presented early next month — so it’s another factor that may be adding to delay the commission’s Google-Fitbit decision.