SoftBank to invest $1B into German digital payments provider Wirecard in new fintech partnership

SoftBank is making a huge investment into one of the providers of the kind of digital commerce infrastructure that underpins many of the companies that it backs. Today, Wirecard — a digital payments provider based out of Germany — announced that SoftBank Group is investing around €900 million ($1 billion) as part of a broader digital payments partnership, to help Wirecard expand into Japan and South Korea, as well as build and provide financial services to SoftBank’s extensive list of portfolio companies, which includes the likes of Uber, OpenDoor Labs, WeWork, Grab, DoorDash, Alibaba and more.

“Under the [Memorandum of Understanding], SoftBank Group will seek to support Wirecard’s geographic expansion into Japan and South Korea, as well as providing collaboration opportunities within SoftBank Group’s global portfolio in digital payments, data-analytics/AI and other innovative digital financial services,” Wirecard noted in a statement. Wirecard added that the deal is also likely to include a “joint exploration of new product and service offers in digital lending in order to leverage from high quality customer portfolios, strong liquidity and other innovative financing solutions.”

Wirecard is publicly traded and currently has a market cap of €17.18 billion (around $19 billion). It competes with the likes of Adyen, FirstData, WorldPay, Stripe and more. Having had its start as far back as 1999 in working with online gambling sites, today it also works with challenger banks and other new fintech startups like Number26 and TransferWise.

But the investment to expand in Asia comes at a somewhat thorny time for Wirecard. The company has been facing an inquiry in Singapore over fraud allegations both in Asia and its home market of Germany. It has denied the allegations.

“As global innovators, we focus heavily on expanding our networks and creating opportunities for companies with groundbreaking ideas,” Wirecard CEO Markus Braun, said in a statement. “In SoftBank we have found a partner that shares both our passion for new technologies and drive to spearhead the latest innovations, all on a global scale. In addition, through this potential partnership, we will expand our reach and products to the East Asian markets, thereby further strengthening our position in Asia.”

Wirecard said that as part of the deal, it will issue convertible bonds with a term of five years exclusively to SoftBank, convertible to 6,923,076 ordinary Wirecard shares (currently corresponding to approximately 5.6% of common stock) at €130 per Wirecard share. The deal is subject to the approval of Wirecard’s Annual Shareholders meeting, which will be held on 18 June 2019.

Wirecard offers end-to-end services covering all aspects of payments, with a particular emphasis on digital transactions. It also provides card issuing, risk management, data analytics and related services.

SoftBank has become one of the world’s most influential investors with its $100 billion Vision Fund. It’s not clear which division of SoftBank is leading this particular transaction — the news announcement specifies only that “an affiliate of SoftBank” is making the investment — but despite the Vision Fund being located in London, it’s made relatively few fintech investments in Europe out of the Vision Fund. For that reason, this stake in Wirecard, based out of Munich, is also notable.

The first involved leading a $440 million round for OakNorth Holdings, a digital banking startup. It is also reportedly a partner in a new Abu Dhabi $400 million European investment fund.

A court ruling ‘chalking’ illegal could make way for more privacy-invasive tech

If you’ve ever had a parking ticket, there’s a good chance you know what “chalking” is.

A federal appeals court ruled this week that the practice of marking a car tires unconstitutional, a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches and seizures.

For years traffic enforcement officers have marked car tires with chalk to see when they check back if a car has moved. It’s often used in places where parking meters aren’t available. Parking violations often serve as a key source of revenue for local municipalities.

That struck a nerve with one local resident of Saginaw, Michigan. Local resident Alison Taylor took the city to court after receiving more than a dozen citations in a year, alleging a local parking enforcement officer, Tabitha Hoskins, named defendant alongside the city in the case, was violating her constitutional rights.

The city initially won but the U.S. Sixth Circuit Appeals Court reversed the decision, said that chalking is a form of trespass that requires a warrant, similar to attaching a tracker to a car to monitor its real-time location, according to the court’s ruling.

While the Fourth Amendment generally protects Americans from law enforcement searching your house or devices without a court-approved warrant to obtain evidence of a crime, Taylor argued that those protections equally apply to obtaining information about whether her car was moved or not.

According to the court, the parking enforcement officer — a local government employee — trespassed on Taylor’s car “because the City made intentional physical contact with Taylor’s vehicle.” The court found that the chalking was an “attempt to find something or to obtain information” from the car — albeit in a low-tech way — specifically to determine if the vehicle has “been parked in the same location for a certain period of time.”

What may seem like a victory to anyone who’s ever wanted to fight a parking ticket, some are worried that the legal precedent could lead to the adoption of more privacy-invasive technologies instead.

“As cities begin to comply with the Sixth Circuit’s decision, it is crucial that they avoid adopting even more problematic practices,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology project.

“Any attempt to enforce parking rules by building pervasive databases of vehicle location data or similar information would raise grave privacy concerns and run up against the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Other cities are already using more advanced technologies like automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) systems to scan plates to see if a vehicle has moved from one place to another. ALPR remains controversial but arguably still legal at the federal level — even if these plate scanners have faced challenges at the local level.

Rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation warn that creating databases of scanned license plate is “invasive” for residents’ privacy. Police don’t currently need a warrant to search through these vast databases. The EFF is campaigning to require a warrant to search ALPR databases.

Meanwhile, there are tech-ready and privacy-minded solutions to the parking enforcement problem, experts say.

Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said in a tweet that it “seems easy enough these days for parking enforcers to just take a photo of the car, or even just a close-up photo of the tire.”

Saginaw hasn’t yet responded to the ruling. City manager Tim Morales was unavailable for comment when reached Tuesday.

Getaround acquires European car rental platform Drivy for $300 million

Getaround, the peer-to-peer car-sharing startup that launched at TC Disrupt back in 2011, is making moves to become a global car rental service. Today, the Softbank-backed startup announced its acquisition of Drivy, a Paris-headquartered car-sharing startup that operates in 170 European cities.

“We were obviously looking at what our European strategy was and how we would expand out of the U.S. and into other parts of the world,” Getaround CEO Sam Zaid told TechCrunch. “When we started looking at Europe, it became clear Drivy was the market leader. They also shared the same vision.”

This marks Getaround’s first expansion out of the U.S.  As part of the deal, Drivy founder and CEO Paulin Dementhon will run the company’s operations in Europe as CEO for the continent.

“Getaround is an ideal partner for us because our companies are aligned in so many ways while being complimentary on key aspects of our business, like geography or fleet acquisition,” Dementhon said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.”

Combined with Drivy, Getaround now has more than five million users. Moving forward, Getaround has its eyes set on becoming a truly global company.

“The objective here is to build the iconic brand for consumers in car share and next-generation mobility, and be one of those companies with a global footprint,” Zaid said. “Servicing people living in their home cities but also when they travel to other cities across the world.”

This acquisition and plans for expansion are undoubtedly fueled by the $300 million Series D round Getaround raised in August from SoftBank.

Audible now offers live customer service through Alexa devices

Alexa devices just got a new use case: live customer service help. This morning, Amazon’s e-book company Audible announced the first live customer service experience on Alexa devices, activated through voice commands. Instead of dialing a phone number or writing an email, Audible customers can ask Alexa to reach Audible on their behalf. They’re then connected to a customer service expert who can help them with their account, resolve technical problems, answer questions, and even make book recommendations.

To use the option, Alexa device owners just have to say “Alexa, call Audible,” to get started.

This is not the first time Amazon (or in this case, a subsidiary) has tried to connect users to live help through a hardware device. In previous years, Amazon offered a service called Mayday on its Fire tablets that could put people immediately in touch with Amazon’s own customer service agents. However, that service shut down last June. 

With Alexa devices, however, the process of reaching out to customer service may feel more natural than on tablets, because Echo owners already know how to use their devices to call friends, drop-in on family members, and otherwise. Echo devices have supported Alexa calling since 2017, for example, and the ability to call businesses following select voice commands since December.

Similarly, the new Audible voice command is able to trigger a call to the e-book company’s customer service department, as Alexa apps are assigned a phone number to facilitate these sorts of outbound calls.

“At Audible, we are always looking to further personalize the listening experience on behalf of the millions of customers we serve,” said Abhinav Mathur, Audible’s Senior Vice President of Global Customer Care, in a statement. “Audible isn’t just a destination, it’s a lifestyle that keeps people entertained and inspired while going about their daily routines, so we’re thrilled to offer listeners hands-free customer support from a live person while they cook, craft, or relax at home. Enjoying Audible on Alexa has never been so easy and convenient, and we hope this innovation ushers in a new era of customer service,” he added.

Audible already supported several other Alexa commands before today, including “Alexa, play my book,” “Alexa, read faster,” Alexa, next chapter,” “Alexa, what’s free on Audible?” and others.

The new customer service voice command is currently available to Alexa device owners in the U.S., 24/7.

Twitter to offer report option for misleading election tweets

Twitter is adding a dedicated report option that enables users to tell it about misleading tweets related to voting — starting with elections taking place in India and the European Union .

From tomorrow users in India can report tweets they believe are trying to mislead voters — such as disinformation related to the date or location of polling stations; or fake claims about identity requirements for being able to vote — by tapping on the arrow menu of the suspicious tweet and selecting the ‘report tweet’ option and then choosing: ‘It’s misleading about voting’.

Twitter says the tool will go live for the Indian Lok Sabha elections from tomorrow, and will launch in all European Union member states on April 29 — ahead of elections for the EU parliament next month.

The ‘misleading about voting’ option will persist in the list of available choices for reporting tweets for seven days after each election ends, Twitter said in a blog post announcing the feature.

It also said it intends to the vote-focused feature to be rolled out to “other elections globally throughout the rest of the year”, without providing further detail on which elections and markets it will prioritize for getting the tool.

“Our teams have been trained and we recently enhanced our appeals process in the event that we make the wrong call,” Twitter added.

In recent months the European Commission has been ramping up pressure on tech platforms to scrub disinformation ahead of elections to the EU parliament — issuing monthly reports on progress, or, well, the lack of it.

This follows a Commission initiative last year which saw major tech and ad platforms — including Facebook, Google and Twitter — sign up to a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation, committing themselves to take some non-prescribed actions to disrupt the ad revenues of disinformation agents and make political ads more transparent on their platforms.

Another strand of the Code looks to have directly contributed to the development of Twitter’s new ‘misleading about voting’ report option — with signatories committing to:

  • Empower consumers to report disinformation and access different news sources, while improving the visibility and findability of authoritative content;

In the latest progress report on the Code, which was published by the Commission yesterday but covers steps taken by the platforms in March 2019, it noted some progress made — but said it’s still not enough.

“Further technical improvements as well as sharing of methodology and data sets for fake accounts are necessary to allow third-party experts, fact-checkers and researchers to carry out independent evaluation,” EC commissioners warned in a joint statement.

In the case of Twitter the company was commended for having made political ad libraries publicly accessible but criticized (along with Google) for not doing more to improve transparency around issue-based advertising.

“It is regrettable that Google and Twitter have not yet reported further progress regarding transparency of issue-based advertising, meaning issues that are sources of important debate during elections,” the Commission said. 

It also reported that Twitter had provided figures on actions undertaken against spam and fake accounts but had failed to explain how these actions relate to activity in the EU.

“Twitter did not report on any actions to improve the scrutiny of ad placements or provide any metrics with respect to its commitments in this area,” it also noted.

The EC says it will assess the Code’s initial 12-month period by the end of 2019 — and take a view on whether it needs to step in and propose regulation to control online disinformation. (Something which some individual EU Member States are already doing, albeit with a focus on hate speech and/or online safety.)