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Digital currencies move from talk to action

April 27, 2020, 1:55 PM UTC

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Last year, when hopping on a plane to discuss trending business topics was normal, the notion of a world with digital currencies was all the rage at two Fortune conferences. Last June, in Montauk, N.Y., Facebook-affiliated Libra had just released some details about its plans. It was the talk of Brainstorm Finance. Closer to the end of the year, at the Fortune Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou, a hot topic was the Chinese government’s intention to launch a digital currency.

Now that we’re all grounded, digital currencies have moved from talk to action, at least in some cases and some places. Libra has grown quieter and perhaps less ambitious, though the coalition of companies and investors Facebook assembled to work on it continues. In China, meanwhile, the People’s Bank of China has begun a limited test of an actual digital currency that couldn’t be more different than the so-called cryptocurrencies of libertarian fever dreams, like Bitcoin.

China’s experimental currency, which doesn’t have a name yet—Silicon Valley would have done better at this, at least—will be tightly controlled by the Chinese government. Right now it is noodling with using the currency for transit payments, a modest start.

But it is a start. As Jen Wieczner reports in the current issue of Fortune, “fintech” companies of all stripes are getting a boost from their role in moving money during the pandemic. And Coinbase’s Michael Casey argued in a Fortune essay that the U.S. runs the risk of letting China build a big lead if it doesn’t get its act together soon.

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Speaking of the U.S. not having its act together, I highly recommend this lucid, important essay by Jim Yong Kim former president of the World Bank, about what’s needed to move forward to fight the pandemic. He argues that only by using five—and all five are required—tools can the pandemic be beaten: social distancing, contact tracing, testing, isolation, and treatment. It’s simple, but extremely difficult to pull off.

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For my next Data Sheet conversation, I’ll be chatting with longtime tech analyst Gene Munster about how he sees the investing environment playing out. The call is live on Wednesday, April 29, at 10 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Eastern. Once again, I’ll take your questions via chat. (This call will be audio only: you have permission to multi-task.) Register here to listen and participate.

Adam Lashinsky

@adamlashinsky

adam.lashinsky@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.

NEWSWORTHY

I know where you've been. As Apple and Google perfect their contact tracing system, excuse me, exposure notification system, some countries are moving ahead. Australia launched an app that uses Bluetooth to track proximity and a national database to store the data, ignoring the companies' system. Germany, however, appeared to change course and dropped plans for a central server in favor of the tech companies' approach, which stores data on individual phones. Companies including PwC are making tracing apps for their employees, as well.

My complication had a little complication. Speaking of Apple, in one of those stories that's obviously important inside the company but of unclear importance to all the rest of us, the Wall Street Journal reports that Apple has delayed the start of its annual manufacturing push for new iPhones by one month. Does that mean the new iPhones won't be introduced or go on sale in September per usual? We do not know. Apple, per usual, declined to comment.

There's gonna have to be a different man. About six months earlier than expected, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is stepping down. His top lieutenant and life long Bell employee John Stankey takes over on July 1. Now all three major phone companies will have switched CEOs in the past few years. Hans Vestberg took over at Verizon in August, 2018, and Mike Sievert just took the reins at T-Mobile on April 1. 

Limberg gets pretty mean. Gaming giant Nintendo said Friday that hackers “obtained illegally” the personal IDs and passwords about 160,000 online accounts. Additional information like people’s names, date of birth, country, gender, and email addresses may have been exposed.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

While the U.S. endlessly debates privacy protection, lawmakers in Europe already did something about it. Two years ago, they adopted the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. But it hasn't quite worked out as well as the law's proponents had hoped, as Adam Satariano reports for the New York Times.

In a February survey of privacy regulators in 30 European countries, 21 responded that “resources are not enough” to fulfill their responsibilities. Luxembourg, which is responsible for regulating Amazon, had a budget of roughly €5.7 million last year, worth about $6.2 million, or roughly Amazon’s sales over 10 minutes.

“We have a lack of enforcement,” said Ulrich Kelber, the chairman of Germany’s data protection authority, which has the highest budget in the European Union, at roughly €85 million when including regional agencies. “Most of the European governments don’t give enough resources to the data protection authorities.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Work from home tips from the executive team that brought you Zoom By Michal Lev-Ram

Facebook debuts Zoom-like video chat feature called Messenger Rooms By Danielle Abril

A.I. will be crucial to companies outside of Silicon Valley—and they need a new playbook for it By Andrew Ng

How retailers retooled podcasts to connect with customers and staff during the coronavirus pandemic By Kate Bowers

Vending machines—the original contactless delivery systems—now deliver ramen and art to U.S. consumers By Margaret Littman

5 ways to find unadvertised job openings By Gwen Moran

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

Not quite sure if this is real or a joke, but if it's a joke, it's pretty funny. So, game developer Jacob Janerka and animator Ivan Dixon are pitching to make a game about nothing, aka The Seinfeld Adventure Game. They lay out their hilarious if insane plan with a web site and trailer video. The idea (?) is that the pitch catches viral fire with the hashtag #seinfeldgame and the rights owners grant them a license to make the game. If not, no soup for you.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com