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May 26, 2019
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Indonesia restricts WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram usage following deadly riots

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Indonesia is the latest nation to hit the hammer on social media after the government restricted the use of WhatsApp and Instagram following deadly riots yesterday.

Numerous Indonesia-based users are today reporting difficulties sending multimedia messages via WhatsApp, which is one of the country’s most popular chat apps, and posting content to Facebook, while the hashtag #instagramdown is trending among the country’s Twitter users due to problems accessing the Facebook-owned photo app.

Wiranto, a coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, confirmed in a press conference that the government is limiting access to social media and “deactivating certain features” to maintain calm, according to a report from Coconuts.

Rudiantara, the communications minister of Indonesia and a critic of Facebook, explained that users “will experience lag on Whatsapp if you upload videos and photos.”

Facebook — which operates both WhatsApp and Instagram — didn’t explicitly confirm the blockages , but it did say it has been in communication with the Indonesian government.

“We are aware of the ongoing security situation in Jakarta and have been responsive to the Government of Indonesia. We are committed to maintaining all of our services for people who rely on them to communicate with their loved ones and access vital information,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

A number of Indonesia-based WhatsApp users confirmed to TechCrunch that they are unable to send photos, videos and voice messages through the service. Those restrictions are lifted when using Wi-Fi or mobile data services through a VPN, the people confirmed.

The restrictions come as Indonesia grapples with political tension following the release of the results of its presidential election on Tuesday. Defeated candidate Prabowo Subianto said he will challenge the result in the constitutional court.

Riots broke out in capital state Jakarta last night, killing at least six people and leaving more than 200 people injured. Following this, it is alleged that misleading information and hoaxes about the nature of riots and people who participated in them began to spread on social media services, according to local media reports.

Protesters hurl rocks during clash with police in Jakarta on May 22, 2019. – Indonesian police said on May 22 they were probing reports that at least one demonstrator was killed in clashes that broke out in the capital Jakarta overnight after a rally opposed to President Joko Widodo’s re-election. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP)

For Facebook, seeing its services forcefully cut off in a region is no longer a rare incident. The company, which is grappling with the spread of false information in many markets, faced a similar restriction in Sri Lanka in April, when the service was completely banned for days amid terrorist strikes in the nation. India, which just this week concluded its general election, has expressed concerns over Facebook’s inability to contain the spread of false information on WhatsApp, which is its largest chat app with over 200 million monthly users.

Indonesia’s Rudiantara expressed a similar concern earlier this month.

“Facebook can tell you, ‘We are in compliance with the government’. I can tell you how much content we requested to be taken down and how much of it they took down. Facebook is the worst,” he told a House of Representatives Commission last week, according to the Jakarta Post.

Update 05/22 02:30 PDT: The original version of this post has been updated to reflect that usage of Facebook in Indonesia has also been impacted.

Trump’s Huawei ban ‘wins’ one trade battle, but the US may lose the networking war

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While U.S. government officials celebrate what they must consider to be a win in their battle against the low-cost, high-performance networking vendor Huawei and other Chinese hardware manufacturers, the country is at risk of falling seriously behind in the broader, global competition for telecom tech and customers.

It may be a race that the U.S. is willing to concede, but it should be noted that Huawei’s sphere of influence on other shores continues to expand, even as the company’s ability to operate in the U.S. is completely proscribed.

Indeed, Huawei’s executive director and chairman of its investment review board, David Wang, told Bloomberg that, “Our U.S. business is not that big. We have global operations. We still will have stable operations.”

Wang is right… to a point. Huawei derives most of its sales from international markets, according to a 2018 financial report released earlier this year, but it depends heavily on technology from U.S. chip manufacturers for its equipment. Without those supplies, Huawei could find itself in a very difficult spot, indeed.

Huawei’s end of year financials showed its consumer devices business is now its main money-maker, while the majority of its revenue is not derived from the U.S. market

And the U.S. has its reasons for working to stymie Huawei’s efforts to expand the reach of its networking technologies as this excellent Twitter thread from Adam Townsend persuasively argues.

Essentially, China has invested its basically limitless capital into subsidizing next-gen wireless technology and buying up next-generation startups and innovators, all while the U.S. has borne early stage risk. Meanwhile, it is also using unlimited money to poach regulators and industry experts who might advocate against it.

Huawei continues to make inroads in nations across the emerging markets of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa where demand for connectivity is on the rise. Those are regions where the U.S. has plenty of strategic interests, but America’s ability to sway public opinion or entice governments to act against Chinese networking companies could be severely limited by its inability to offer meaningful incentives or alternatives to them.

Even with the passage of the BUILD Act in October 2018, which was meant to revitalize U.S. foreign aid and investment with a $60 billion package, it’s worth noting that China spent nearly $47 billion in foreign investment in Europe alone in 2018. Chinese direct investments totaled another $49.45 billion into Africa and the Middle East and $18 billion into South America, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute, compiled by Foreign Policy.

Map courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute.

Those investments have turned nations that should be staunch political allies into reluctant or simply rhetorical backers of the U.S. position. Take the relationship between the U.S. and Brazil, for example — a historically strong partnership going back years and one that seemingly only strengthened given the similarities between the two ultraconservative leaders in power in both nations.

However, as Foreign Affairs reports, Brazil is unlikely to accede to President Trump’s demands that Brazil aids in steps to block China’s economic expansion.

“Brazilian business groups have already begun to defend the country’s deep trade ties to China, rightly pointing out that any hope of containing China and once more turning the United States into Brazil’s most important trading partner is little more than unrealistic nostalgia,” writes Foreign Affairs correspondent, Oliver Stuenkel. “Working alongside powerful military generals, these business associations are mobilizing to avoid any delays that sidelining Huawei in the region could cause in getting 5G up and running.”

The whole article is worth reading, but its refrain is that the attempts by U.S. government officials to paint Huawei and Chinese economic inroads as a national security threat in developing economies are largely falling on deaf ears.

It’s not just networking technologies either. As one venture capitalist who invests in Latin America and the U.S. told TechCrunch anonymously: “It’s interesting how the U.S.-China relationships are going to affect what is happening in Latin America. The Chinese are already being more aggressive on the banking side.”

China’s big technology companies are also taking an interest in South America, both as vendors and as investors on the continent.

In an article in Crunchbase, the South American and Chinese-focused venture capitalist, Nathan Lustig underscored the trend. Lustig wrote:

In both the private and the public sectors, China is swiftly increasing its support for Latin America. Chinese expertise in financial technology, as well as its influence in developing markets around the world, is turning China into a strategic partner for startups and entrepreneurs in Latin America. Most of the Chinese investment in Latin America so far is going to Brazil, although this is likely to spread across the region as Chinese investors become better-acquainted with the local tech ecosystems, most likely to Mexico.

Beyond the Didi Chuxing acquisition of Brazil’s 99 in January, Chinese companies began investing heavily in Brazilian fintech startups, specifically Nubank and StoneCo, this year.

Indeed, China has an entire catalog of low-cost technologies and economic packages from state-owned and privately held investors to support their adoption, backing up its position as the leader for tech across a range of applications in emerging markets.

For the U.S. to compete, it will have to look beyond protectionism at its shores to actual commitments to greater economic development abroad. With lower tax revenues coming in and the prospect of giant deficits building up as far as the eye can see, there’s not much room to promote an alternative to Huawei internationally. That could leave the country increasingly isolated and create far more problems as it gets left behind.

Bitcoin has surged above $8,000 and theories around why abound

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Bitcoin is now trading at around $8,130, up a whopping 60.84 percent over the past month, with the price surging $3,086.14 over the period.

The cryptocurrency’s meteoric rise is reminiscent of its rocketing growth in the latter half of 2017, when prices reached over $18,400 on the back of buoyant capital markets, rampant speculation, and a turbulent political climate in Northern Asia spurred by saber rattling between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.

While geopolitical tension is once again gripping the market (thanks to the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China), that may only be one factor contributing to Bitcoin’s surge.

“Anticipation of the upcoming supply shock [of new BTC introduced via mining] may be creating upward pressure on the price of Bitcoin,” wrote Alyse Killeen, a partner at the investment and advisory firm Stillmark, in an email. “Bitcoin is introduced to the market when the Bitcoin protocol rewards miners who validate blockchain transactions. Specifically, the Bitcoin protocol gives BTC to miners for adding blocks to the blockchain. Today, miners earn 12.5 BTC for adding a new block that is accepted by the network. In May 2020, the time of the next ‘halvening‘, that reward will be reduced to 6.25 BTC, thereby reducing the total number of BTC introduced to the market on a daily basis.”

Killeen also noted that Bitcoin is inherently more valuable today than it was at the same time last year. More Americans can access Bitcoin through apps like Cash and Robinhood, and TD Ameritrade’s BTC contracts and (soon) eTrade.

Technology advances are also making Bitcoin more useful and more secure, Killeen wrote. The development of the Lightning Network is proceeding and creating a new application ecosystem, while the Blockstream Satellite network is creating redundancies in blockchain availability.

In fact, the number of businesses that take Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies expanded exponentially yesterday thanks to an agreement between the U.S. dollar-pegged stablecoin purveyor Gemini (owned by the Winkelvoss twins of Facebook and Social Network fame) and the payment network Flexa, whose technology is undergirded by cryptocurrencies.

Using Gemini’s exchange and clearing house and Flexa’s transaction technology most of the stores an American consumer encounters in their trip to the mall now accept Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies as payments.

That adoption doesn’t explain the bump in Bitcoin prices entirely. And skeptics of digital cryptocurrencies argue that there could be a simpler explanation for the rise in digital currencies right now — good old fashioned price manipulation.

As crypto-skeptic David Gerard wrote in this blog post yesterday:

It’s because the price of Bitcoin is a proxy for margin trading — and rather than investing in the commodity itself, you can make more money by manipulating this thin and ill-regulated market to burn the margin traders.

This also allows the large holders — the “whales,” and the exchanges themselves — to cash out to whatever little actual-money US dollars are available, in a trading system where the liquidity is mostly fake dollars called “tethers.”

Willy Woo explains how short squeezes work in crypto. This is a pattern we see over and over:

1) When the market is majority short, there’s too much money to be had to allow them to win.

2) Whales keep buying up the market until the shorts get liquidated.

3) At liquidation the short seller has to buy back at market price.

4) A tidal wave of buys cascade through the orderbooks, a chain reaction, the price goes vertical.

5) Whale payday. The whales that bought up the market sheparding the price up now dump their positions at profit.

6) Blow-off. The price comes down to its organic levels.

Other investors, like Travis Scher at the Digital Currency Group think that it’s as simple as a new class of investor looking at Bitcoin as a new store of value and a haven for investors looking to escape volatile public markets.

“I spend very little time trying to understand or explain short-term crypto price movements, as the price and the fundamentals often seem to move in diametrically opposed directions. So all I can say with certainty is that there are more buyers than sellers in recent months,” Scher wrote in an email. “But in this case, I do think that one factor driving the rally is that the narrative around Bitcoin as digital gold is growing. We fully expect Bitcoin to replace gold as the leading non-government controlled store of value over the coming decade.”

Lattice raises another $15M to improve performance reviews

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Sam Altman’s little brother Jack is an entrepreneur, too.

Jack Altman, whose resume includes a stint as vice president of business development at Teespring, has raised $15 million in Series B funding for his startup, Lattice, a modern approach to corporate goal setting. Shasta Ventures led the round, with participation from Thrive Capital, Khosla Ventures and Y Combinator, the latter being the organization his brother led as president until very recently.

Lattice, used by high-growth companies like Reddit, Slack, Coinbase and Glossier, helps human resources professionals develop insights about their teams. Founded in 2015, Altman and Eric Koslow, like most entrepreneurs, developed the idea for Lattice out of their own pain points.

“We realized that with quarterly goal settings, OKRs, we would write them up and get the leadership together and then they would sit on a shelf and nothing would happen,” Altman told TechCrunch.

Lattice, a SaaS business, is a flexible platform that caters to startups and larger businesses’ specific cultures, management practices and varying approaches to employee engagement. The product, inspired by platforms like Gmail and Slack, is designed with consumers in mind. Lattice, the team hopes, has a look and feel that makes incumbent HR platforms feel antiquated. 

The product makes it simple for employees and their managers to complete engagement surveys, share feedback, arrange one-on-one meetings and complete comprehensive performance reviews with a larger goal of reworking the company goal-setting process entirely. No more once-yearly check-ins; Lattice enables businesses to check-in with their employees on a weekly basis. 

Lattice currently has 1,200 customers, 60 employees and was cash flow break-even for the first time in Q1 2019. With the latest financing, the San Francisco-based startup plans to invest in product development.

“Life is short,” Altman said. “You want to have work that you enjoy and an office that feels good to be at.”

Lattice has previously raised capital from investors including SV Angel, Marc Benioff, Slack Fund and Fuel Capital, Sam Altman, Elad Gil, Alexis Ohanian, Kevin Mahaffey, Daniel Gross and Jake Gibson. Lattice completed the Y Combinator startup accelerator in 2016.

Drone delivery startup Zipline launches UAV medical program in Ghana

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Zipline, the San Francisco-based UAV manufacturer and logistics services provider, has launched a program in Ghana today for drone delivery of medical supplies.

Working with the Ghanaian government, Zipline will operate 30 drones out of four distribution centers to distribute vaccines, blood, and life-saving medications to 2000 health facilities across the West African nation daily.

“We’ll do 600 flights day…and serve 12 million people. This is going to be the largest drone delivery network on the planet,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told TechCrunch on a call from Accra.

“No one in Ghana should die because they can’t access the medicine they need in an emergency,” Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a statement. “That’s why Ghana is launching the world’s largest drone delivery service…a major step towards giving everyone in this country universal access to lifesaving medicine.”

The Ghana program adds a second country to Zipline’s live operations. Zipline got off the ground in Rwanda and has leveraged its experience in East Africa to begin testing medical delivery services in the United States.

Zipline has been making moves in Africa since at least 2016 — after it raised capital and solidified its mission to carve out a global revenue-generating business around UAV delivery of critical medical supplies.

To date, the startup has raised $41 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Subtraction Capital.

Founded in 2014, Zipline designs and manufactures its own UAVs, launch and landing systems, and logistics software. After a testing period in coordination with the government of Rwanda, Zipline went live in the East African country in 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

Through its non-profit foundation, the logistics giant UPS came in to partner with Zipline on the Rwanda program, and that support continues.

“They’re providing funding to build a lot of the infrastructure required, they are an adviser to us, and they provide some logistical support in moving equipment,” Rinaudo said of Zipline’s collaboration with the UPS Foundation. Zipline has also received grants and support from from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Pfizer .

Zipline then carried its experience in Africa to the U.S. In May 2018 the startup was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.—and started testing beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.

“Healthcare logistics is a $70 billion global industry, and it’s still only serving a golden billion on the planet,” says Rinaudo. “The economics of our business is pretty simple. We’re using small, electric, fully autonomous vehicles…these kinds of systems are much more efficient than the analog way of delivering things.”

Zipline is eyeing additional countries for delivery operations beyond Ghana, Rwanda, and its pilot operations in the U.S. “We’ll be launching in several additional countries, not all of which are in Africa,” said Rinaudo, though he declined to disclose specifics.

Zipline is well aware that its drone logistics systems have applications beyond medical supply chain services and Rinaudo confirmed moving cargo other than medical supplies is something Zipline has considered.

If the company moves toward other commercial applications, it could leverage its programs and relationships in Africa. The continent has become testbed for commercial drone delivery and regulatory structures.

Over the last two years South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots and Malawi opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and global partners. Over the same period, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives. The government of Tanzania launched a medical drone delivery program in 2019, with DHL as one of the main partners.

In addition to its launch today in Ghana, Zipline plans to move from pilot-phase to live-delivery of medical supplies in the U.S. sometime this summer, a company spokesperson confirmed.

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