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Dogecoin’s record-breaking rise shoots ‘joke’ cryptocurrency to wider attention | Cryptocurrencies

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It is perhaps the ultimate symbol of late capitalism: a digital currency that started as a joke, now worth more than the Ford motor company, BP or Tesco.

Riding a wave of speculative interest despite Covid-19 triggering the worst global recession since the 1930s Great Depression, Dogecoin has been a huge hit with amateur investors. It is a cryptocurrency based on an internet meme – a humorous online phrase or photo, which on this occasion is a dog – and has shot to wider attention with a record-breaking rise in value in recent weeks.

Backed by famous supporters including the Tesla founder, Elon Musk, the rapper Snoop Dogg and the Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, the digital asset similar to bitcoin jumped by more than 40% on Wednesday to reach $0.68 (£0.49) against the dollar, according to CoinMarketCap.

With a surge of more than 14,000% since the start of the year, Dogecoin’s market capitalisation – the combined value of every coin – has now hit more than $84bn, equivalent to the annual economic output of Sri Lanka.

Analysts said the rising price of the digital currency, which is similar to bitcoin, comes amid interest ahead of Musk hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend, given the billionaire’s public support on Twitter for Dogecoin and the potential that him appearing on the popular US TV show will raise its profile further.

“Dogecoin is surging because many cryptocurrency traders do not want to miss out on any buzz that stems from Elon Musk’s hosting of Saturday Night Live.” said Edward Moya, senior market analyst at the financial trading platform Oanda.

“Also known as the Dogefather, Musk will undoubtedly have a sketch on cryptocurrencies that will probably go viral for days and further motivate his army of followers to try to send Dogecoin to the moon,” he said.

Musk already has form as a crypto maverick, buying $1.5bn of bitcoin with cash reserves at Tesla. He has previously tweeted support for Dogecoin in what may be best understood as the perpetuation of an online joke.

Having often courted controversy on Twitter for offbeat comments, costing him and his company millions of dollars and landing him in legal trouble, Musk helped raise Dogecoin’s profile in February by posting a picture of Doge on the moon, planting a flag bearing the digital currency’s logo, and captioned with one word: “literally”.

The tweet pushed up the value of the digital currency by more than 20% on the day. The phrase “to the moon” is used online to talk up investments, indicating the direction of travel for a financial asset, and was used prominently by Reddit users on the WallStreetBets forum earlier this year as small investors boosted shares in GameStop in an attempt to undermine hedge funds.

Created in 2013 by two software engineers from IBM and Adobe, the Dogecoin digital currency is based on the Doge meme, which features a Japanese shiba inu dog surrounded by grammatically incorrect phrases in a kind of inner monologue.

Written in deliberately broken English, the meme involves pairing a modifier – such as “so”, “such” or “very” – with a word that ought not to be modified, such as “so wow” or “much currency”.

Dogecoin’s rise comes on the back of the boom in bitcoin that has lifted the value of the original digital currency to more than $50,000, coming as stock markets around the world soar to fresh record highs despite the worst economic collapse for at least a generation.

Similar to internet-fuelled speculation in GameStop, the surge in Dogecoin comes as the US government sends out its third round of emergency Covid-19 payments to eligible American households.

Washington has distributed more than 163m stimulus cheques, worth $384bn, in payments of up to $1,400 per person, plus $1,400 per dependent. Although intended as support for struggling households, economists say this has helped to fuel a rise in stock markets and crypto assets such as bitcoin and Dogecoin, as more affluent recipients put their cheques into financial investments.

It also comes as traditional fiat currencies, such as the dollar, pound and euro, risk being debased by record low interest rates from central banks, and billions of dollars worth of quantitative easing; the buying of bonds to keep borrowing costs low, effectively printing new money.

Expectations are rising that stronger economic growth will take hold as the Covid vaccine enables a faster return to normal, at a time when government and central bank support remains high. Economists warn this would lead to a rise in inflation, which would erode the value of fiat money, making digital currencies a potentially attractive proposition.

“The big story underneath all of it is the money printing presses turning in the states and everywhere else too,” said Erik Britton, managing director of the economic research firm Fathom Consulting.

“Anything denominated in that money tends to rise in value, whether it’s the bitcoin or Dogecoin exchange rate, equities or any other asset – such as housing – if you print shed loads of that currency other things will tend to rise.”

Although started as a joke, some early buyers of the digital currency have become millionaires, while one anonymous trader claims to have amassed a fortune worth more than $1bn. However, analysts warn that it could quickly unravel because the digital currency has no intrinsic value; relying on investment hype, speculation, and fear of missing out.

Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at the trading platform Avatrade, said some of the “insanity” surrounding Dogecoin was likely to ease after hitting record highs.

“Dogecoin is the most speculative coin, and most traders are just not aware of the risk,” he said.

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Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook | John Naughton

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The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.

Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.

Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”

Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.

Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.

You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.

What I’ve been reading

Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.

Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.

On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.

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Amazon exec’s husband jailed for two years for insider trading. Yes, with Amazon stock • The Register

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The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.

Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.

Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.

“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.

“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”

The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.

Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.

“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”

Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®

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Stripe rolls out new tax compliance tool for merchants

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Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.

Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.

Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.

The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.

According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.

The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.

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Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.

Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.

“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”

Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.

“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.

Stripe has had a very busy 2021 so far. After raising funding at a $95bn valuation, it has been rolling out more services that go beyond the payments processing the company was originally built on, as well as expanding geographically with a focus on the Middle East.

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