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In India, a Clash of Digital Innovation and Internet Censorship

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Earlier this month, reacting to a decision by India’s highest court, prominent comedian Kunal Kamra tweeted that India’s Supreme Court is the “most Supreme joke of this country.” 

The following day, local media reported that Attorney General K. K. Venugopal greenlighted court proceedings against the comedian, based on a few tweets criticizing the Supreme Court. The charge levied against him: contempt of court. Kamra has refused to apologize for his tweets and local reports indicate proceedings have yet to begin. 

This should be shocking, but unfortunately it’s not. In India, speaking out on the Internet can be dangerous. Kamra told CoinDesk that public figures can receive threats on social media, noting that users leaked his phone number on Twitter multiple times. “They dox people, they release information sometimes. … That’s very normal,” Kamra said.

With over 700 million internet users, India’s booming digital market collides with internet censorship or outright bans.

A similar dynamic plays out in India’s crypto market. Trade on Indian crypto exchanges exploded earlier this year after the Supreme Court ruled to reverse the decision by the country’s central bank (RBI) to ban local financial institutions from providing services to crypto firms. Now, just a few months later, the federal cabinet is reportedly discussing another potential ban. 

While regulators haven’t clarified their stance on digital assets, they have expressed concern over the fiscal and monetary policy implications of fintech applications, including distributed ledger technology (DLT). Regulators have continued to push for local control over fintech payment platforms like WhatsApp Pay, which received approval from the Indian government only after owner Facebook agreed to store user data locally in India and not offshore.

This is part of a much broader trend. Kamra’s case is the latest in a series of targeted attacks on internet users in the country. In a 2019 report, Freedom House warned internet freedom in India had declined “for the fourth year in a row” due to increasing arrests for online activity and frequent internet shutdowns.

Localized internet shutdowns, restrictions on certain content (like pornography) and wholesale bans on select mobile applications are some of the more visible ways in which the Indian government has sought to control the internet. According to a report by local media outlet Mint, in 2017 and 2018 at least 50 individuals were arrested for comments made on social media, largely for posts considered offensive to politicians. 

Digital India

India’s digital ecosystems, from cloud computing to digital payments, are expanding. According to a report by consulting firm McKinsey, core sectors of the digital economy could double their contribution to India’s GDP by 2025, adding up to $435 billion.

On Nov. 19, in his inaugural address at the Bengaluru Tech Summit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his administration’s governance model is “technology first” citing his Digital India initiative that launched five years ago. 

“Digital India has become a way of life, particularly for the poor, marginalized and for those in government,” Prime Minister Modi said.

Yet, since 2014, government authorities have enforced about 450 regional internet shutdowns, with 134 in 2018 alone, according to a local internet shutdown tracker. 

Reasons for the crackdowns range from anticipated public unrest to curbing malpractice in school examinations. This blunt-force approach can also lead to monetary loss for businesses and the disruption of web-based services.  

If there is no internet, there is no cryptocurrency, there is no blockchain, there is no technology. The internet is the crux.

The longest internet shutdown ever recorded in a democracy was implemented by the Indian government in the disputed Kashmir region after the Modi government revoked the state’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019. 

Indian officials justified the extended ban by calling it a necessary move to curb anticipated unrest that might have followed the administrative decision. While services were gradually restored, the blackout lasted over seven months and disrupted some 12 million people’s access to the internet. 

Qazi Zaid, chief editor of Free Press Kashmir (FPK), a local media outlet, said his newsroom had to be shuttered during the blackout. The primarily online publication halted all coverage and risked losing its online readership of over 300,000 people, Zaid told CoinDesk.  

When phone lines were restored, reporters called each other and dictated stories in an attempt to type and publish them, he added. 

“But then we also realized that our audience is not there,” Zaid said.

While FPK managed to gradually come back online in May this year, the blackout had hit local businesses and dried up advertising revenue, Zaid said. He stressed that media censorship in Kashmir hasn’t changed so much after last year’s decision to revoke the region’s special status but it may have been further formalized under recent amendments to digital media policy, giving the government regulatory control over digital news and content providers. 

Loopholes

When the Indian government wants to shut the internet down, it sometimes invokes a 135-year-old law: the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. The act was created by the British rulers in colonial India to curb uprisings, Indian journalist Sonia Faleiro said in a recent MIT Technology Review podcast. The law gives the government authority over all forms of electronic communications (in 1885 that meant telegrams) in the event of a public emergency. 

“In 2017, the law was amended to specify that it allowed the temporary suspension of telecom services,” Faleiro said. 

One of the many problems with the law, Faleiro added, was it did not specify or define “public emergency,” thus allowing the government to label any incident as such and shut down communications. 

Additionally, a controversial 2008 amendment to The Information Technology Act of 2000, Section 66A, allowed the government to imprison any person sending messages deemed “offensive,” “menacing,” “false” or “causing annoyance” through any electronic communications device. Using this law, in 2012 the government arrested two women for Facebook posts critical of the government. 

In 2015, the Supreme Court of India shot down Section 66A, calling it unconstitutional. However, arrests over social media activity continued: In 2016, a Kashmiri man was charged with sedition for liking and sharing anti-India posts on Facebook.

The security argument

Amid a tense border standoff with China earlier this year, India’s government banned 60 China-based apps, including the popular social media platform Tik Tok. 

When border tensions continued, leading to an Indian soldier reportedly being killed by a Chinese landmine, the Indian government restricted 118 more mobile applications from Chinese tech companies in September 2020. 

The government’s statement alleged it had received “several reports” of these applications misusing user data and “surreptitiously transmitting” it to servers located outside India. 

Described as a move to ensure “safety, security and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace” in the government’s September statement, the restrictions took aim at apps from WeChat, Baidu, Alipay and the popular mobile game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which had over 33 million active users in India at the time. 

While the restrictions could have been a knee-jerk reaction to a geopolitical situation that has since cooled down, concerns about the integrity of user data and government surveillance on the internet have persisted as India works on the proposed Personal Data Protection Bill (2019). 

According to Anirudh Burman, associate fellow at Carnegie India, the draft law, introduced in December 2019, deploys an approach quite similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Burman explained that although both frameworks are based on a user-consent model, the Indian bill limits data storage outside the country’s borders and also creates compliance requirements that could burden small enterprises. 

“If there is a medium or small enterprise firm going to get a data protection officer or get an annual data protection audit, it’s a significant cost,” Burman said. 

The draft law’s requirement to store certain types of data locally or always have a copy of it available on local servers has also stoked fears of increased state surveillance, according to a report by DW. Requiring platforms to store data locally could also afford easier access to local law enforcement which, if stored off-shore, would be subject to a different set of laws. 

“U.S. law permits the disclosure only of non-content data. So if you want detailed subscriber information or content data, then you have to go through the due process,” said Burman. Content data here refers to data, processed or unprocessed, that can convey the substance of a communication. 

The draft bill also provides for the creation of a dedicated body, the Data Protection Authority of India, to ensure compliance with the law. A portion of the legislation also grants the federal government the power to “exempt any agency of Government from application of the Act,” thereby creating broad loopholes for the state to duck requirements levied on private enterprises.

The draft law, India’s first attempt at creating a digital privacy and data management framework at the national level, is currently before a joint parliamentary committee. The committee also recently held discussions on law with representatives from companies including Amazon, Twitter, Mastercard, Visa and PayPal. 

Reported to be in the final stages of discussion, the committee is expected to file its recommendations on the bill before the next session of parliament begins. 

Sisyphus’ boulder

Despite the Indian government’s efforts to exercise control over cyberspace, internet policing can only go so far. 

Vikram Subburaj and Arjun Vijay launched Indian crypto exchange Giottus in 2018, just a week after the central bank of India published a circular that banned crypto firms from having bank accounts. Confronted by the ban, they pivoted to setting up a peer-to-peer exchange. 

In March 2020, the Supreme Court of India overruled the central bank circular and, according to the two founders, Giottus has enjoyed record growth in the last six months. 

“We have been growing at a phenomenal rate of 400% YTD and have been clocking a monthly trade volume of $33 million,” Subburaj told CoinDesk via email. 

Vijay doesn’t believe internet censorship can stop web-based services from continuing to grow in India. 

“Censorship doesn’t work with respect to the internet. With VPN and sorts, it just makes it more difficult for you to access something, but it doesn’t prevent someone who wants to access it,” Vijay told CoinDesk. 

Even in Kashmir, where students had to make do with government-imposed low-speed internet for their online classes during the coronavirus pandemic, people found workarounds. According to an Al Jazeera report, two applications (Filo and Wise) created by educators Mubeen Masudi and Imbesat Ahmad helped students access the Internet. 

India’s government seems to understand the Internet is essential for the country’s growth. While authorities sometimes lean toward stringent controls, the government will not completely stamp out digital innovation. This is good news for the crypto industry.

As Neeraj Khandelwal, co-founder of local crypto exchange CoinDCX, told CoinDesk, “If there is no internet, there is no cryptocurrency, there is no blockchain, there is no technology. The internet is the crux.” 





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Coinbase Now Has Over $90B in Assets on Platform

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Coinbase saw whopping growth in 2020 as bitcoin rallied to close out the year.

New numbers published on the Coinbase “About” page Friday show the exchange now has over $90 billion in assets on platform and over 43 million registered users. An Internet Archive snapshot from as recently as last week shows $25 billion in assets on platform though it’s unclear when that data was collected.

The updated figures were collected as part of Coinbase’s 2020 year in review and are current as of Dec. 31, 2020.

“In this report, we take you on a comprehensive tour of the crypto asset class, sharing our unique perspective on how and why these institutions are engaging with the market,” Coinbase Institutional’s Brian Foster wrote in the report’s cover letter.

Coinbase’s asset surge is likely driven by the likes of MicroStrategy, Ruffer Investment and other institutions that have used the exchange’s prime brokerage service to make large bitcoin buys in recent months.

Assets under the control of Coinbase Custody accounted for “more than 50%” of the $90 billion total, the report states, adding that Coinbase executed “single trades exceeding $1 billion for some of the largest institutions in the world.”

The update from Coinbase comes ahead of an expected public listing. Investment bank Goldman Sachs is reportedly working with the firm on its Wall Street debut.

This is a developing story and will be updated.



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Alameda-Backed Investment Platform ‘Stacked’ Acquires Automated Trading Service

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Terms of the deal were not disclosed.



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Blockchain Bites: Clearing the Record on Yellen’s Crypto Concerns and the Bitcoin Double-Spend Fracas

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After dropping 13% yesterday, bitcoin is once again on the ascent. Meanwhile, Janet Yellen has offered a more nuanced view of crypto and small Ethereum mining pools are organizing a campaign against a potential network upgrade.

Top shelf

Miners revolt!
Eight Ethereum mining pools amounting to around 30% of the network’s hash power have formed a quasi-cartel to push back against a proposed blockchain update that would reduce their mining fees. Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP) 1559, floated by Vitalik Buterin, would burn mining fees to help reduce transaction cost volatility. While larger mining pools, like BitFly, F2Pool and Sparkpool, are ambivalent about the upgrade, smaller miners are calling to nix EIP 1559, according to CoinDesk tech reporter Will Foxley.

Trust progress?
Grayscale Investments is laying the groundwork for what could be five new cryptocurrency trusts, for chainlink, basic attention token, decentraland, livepeer and tezos. Preliminary paperwork was filed by the firm’s “statutory trustee,” though it does not guarantee any of these investable products will see the light of day, according to reporting from CoinDesk’s Dan Palmer. (Digital Currency Group owns both CoinDesk and Grayscale.)

Banking deposits
Signature Bank disclosed $10 billion in deposits from its cryptocurrency company clients, in an earnings call Thursday. Representing 16% of the New York firm’s total deposits, this sum is also twice that of competitor Silvergate Bank, which is widely considered the first crypto-forward bank, CoinDesk’s Nathan DiCamillo reports. Without revealing names, Signature’s chief executive said it now banks the “top five crypto exchanges.”

Crypto sweep
The U.S. government’s top investments watchdog flagged a series of unregistered cryptocurrency companies for allegedly duping mostly international investors with false corporate information. Of the 28 suspect investment firms the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) called out Thursday, CoinDesk reporter Danny Nelson found eight that appear to target would-be cryptocurrency investors.

Big in Japan
Following the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission’s (SEC) lawsuit against Ripple, Japanese XRP-stans are left wondering. The cryptocurrency has gained traction in the country as a remittance tool, is backed by one of the largest Japanese financial firms, SBI, and is considered a “cryptocurrency” – not a security, arguably – by Japan’s economy regulator. “The crypto community, I feel, sees this as a big blow to them and as kind of a precursor to what could come in the future, that other companies are also vulnerable,” Mike Kayamori, Liquid Global CEO, told CoinDesk’s Sandali Handagama.

Quick bites

BITCOIN ETF: Five reasons it should be approved. (Bloomberg opinion)

HUMAN TRADERS: A quant fund (not crypto-specific) is giving people a chance. (Bloomberg)

FOR THE FAITHFUL: Joe Weisenthal thinks bitcoin is a religion. Who’s the Pope? (Bloomberg)

BLUE SKIES? Jack Dorsey’s open-source social media platform released a 6o-page overview of the decentralized ecosystem. (Blog)

CUT TO THE CORE: A notable Bitcoin Core dev reflects on his time building and argues Bitcoin needs to decentralize. (Blog)

Market intel

Efficient markets?
Two events batted around to explain bitcoin’s 13% price drop on Thursday are a bit more complicated than they appear on the surface. Yesterday, bitcoin saw its biggest intraday drop since March 12, 2020, when bitcoin tumbled 39%.

Looking for cause, some suggested the markets threw a temper tantrum in response to a rumor that a double-spend appeared in the wild, on the Bitcoin blockchain. That story was picked up by the mainstream press. Others, that traders were spooked by comments made by Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen, who raised concerns about crypto’s use in the criminal underground. That story was picked up by the mainstream press, too.

CoinDesk tech reporter Colin Harper set the record straight: The transaction that looked like a double-spend – the very phenomenon Bitcoin was created to address – was a normal occurrence. The trouble bubbled up after BitMEX researchers found an orphan block containing a 0.00062063 BTC transaction that was also included in a valid block mined to the blockchain.

But it really was no big deal. In what’s called a block reorganization, Bitcoin programmatically dealt with the issue. While the bitcoin was technically “double-spent,” Harper notes, “no new coins were added to Bitcoin’s supply.”

Meanwhile, following a U.S. Senate hearing where Yellen spoke briefly about money laundering and terrorist funding issues that plague bitcoin on Wednesday, the former Federal Reserve Chair disclosed a nuanced opinion of crypto in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee a day later.

To wit: “I think we need to look closely at how to encourage their use for legitimate activities while curtailing their use for malign and illegal activities,” she wrote. “If confirmed, I intend to work closely with the Federal Reserve Board and the other federal banking and securities regulators on how to implement an effective regulatory framework for these and other fintech innovations.”

She is likely to be confirmed today, CoinDesk regulatory reporter Nikhilesh De said.

While neither the rumored double-spend nor Yellen’s concerns are nonevents, they were both based on limited or faulty information that was picked up, (including in yesterday’s Blockchain Bites).

That said, neither news items should be blamed for the market spat, nor should the new information in the public register be seen as leading to today’s price appreciation. As Nic Carter as written, the efficient market hypothesis, the idea that states that asset prices reflect all available information, is complicated.

For now, like during the panic in March, it’s best to keep in mind that “time in the market beats timing the market.”

At stake

Bitcoin’s support
Yesterday was a show of solidarity in the Bitcoin community, after nChain Chief Scientist Craig Wright pushed for cultural touchstones, Bitcoin.org and Bitcoincore.org, to pull the first cryptocurrency white paper off their sites.

Wright, who has long claimed to be Bitcoin’s pseudo-anonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, has filed for patents over Bitcoin’s earliest documentation and intellectual property. The notably rambunctious developer, law student and academic is also the creator of Bitcoin SV (for Satoshi’s Vision), a fork of Bitcoin Cash and competitor coin.

Bitcoin.org rebutted Wright’s legal challenge and kept the document up, though Bitcoincore.org – the main repository for the Bitcoin code base – took it down.

No matter, as CoinDesk Managing Editor Zack Seward reported, some of crypto’s most prominent voices have decided to host a mirror copy. These include Square, Coin Center, Facebook subsidiary Novi and CoinDesk, among dozens more companies, nonprofits and individuals. It has also been uploaded to the “uncensorable” Arweave platform as well as internet alternative the InterPlanetary File System (IFPS), Seward notes.

According to Bitcoin.org, the Bitcoin white paper was published under an open MIT license by Nakamoto, making it a public domain document. “There is no doubt” people have the legal right to host the white paper, the nonprofit said.

Wright has long been a thorn in the Bitcoin community’s side, launching several lawsuits against prominent personalities who questioned his claims of being the authentic Nakamoto. Hodlnaut, the pseudonymous account behind the lightning torch experiment and who was sued for defamation, was vaulted into the spotlight in 2019 with a wave of bitcoin enthusiasts adopting his cartoon cat avatar for their Twitter profile photos.

While the event shows Bitcoin is still capable of rallying together, the real issue at play is much bigger than Wright’s copyright claims. Dozens of businesses have patent key technologies off of, or that support, this open-source system. In some sense, some would argue, a copyright is simply anathema to Bitcoin’s core ideal of permissiveness.

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