Joe Maristela is a serial healthcare entrepreneur based out of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Over the last year, he has begun making angel investments in Philippine tech companies, including a bitcoin umbrella company. Here he talks about what people in the bitcoin space can learn from regulatory developments surrounding Uber.
The Philippines made international headlines recently when it created a new category of transport: Transportation Network Vehicle Service (TNVS).
This designation allows services like Uber to operate outside of the legal grey area it had been stuck in since late last year and moves it toward even wider acceptance among Filipinos.
While all Filipinos should celebrate this recognition, it should matter even more to those who want to see bitcoin gain mainstream adoption in the country. The TNVS ruling provides a case study, if not a precise model, for how the cryptocurrency might come to be regulated in the Philippines, and in turn, reach more Filipinos.
Framing bitcoin in a better light
Back in October of last year, the Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) announced that Uber vehicles did not have the proper franchising to operate. Each Uber vehicle caught would be fined P200,000 (around $4,500).
Naturally, this ruling caused a firestorm on social media. The Philippines proudly lays claim to being the social media capital of the world, and Filipinos are regularly ranked as one of the most emotional. Most Filipino netizens (Internet citizens) criticized the LTFRB ruling as regressive, among other things that bear no repeating here.
Suffice to say, the collective din of the online crowd seemed to say that the Philippine government was making another decision that went counter to the needs of the people it’s supposed to serve.
This is lesson number one for bitcoin enthusiasts in the Philippines and indeed around the world. Government regulation that stifles tech innovation is often beneficial in the long run, even when it may seem like a nail in the coffin at the time. It gives people a cause to rally around, and there’s no better a motivation to raise your fist in the air than the government.
Judging by the level of backlash that the LTFRB got over social media, it’s likely that the vast majority of these netizens had never used Uber. The Philippines, after all, has low credit card penetration, and one is required to take one of its famously ‘frictionless’ rides. They had simply found yet another outlet to express their broader frustrations with the government.
Bitcoin supporters need to play on this tendency: We need to communicate negative government action against the cryptocurrency as a symptom of a wider problem. The government is backwards. The government is shortsighted. The government is anti-innovation.
Rhetoric with this kind of slant will galvanize far more people than the usual talk of empowering the unbanked ever will. Netizens are moved to action more when they feel they are denied something rather than when they feel they are given something. It’s Rosa Parks in the digital age. If we bitcoin supporters are to hail ourselves as pioneers, we must understand this fact. We must be conscious of how we speak of bitcoin and how we frame government action against it.
The Hail Mary in Uber’s playbook
The Bitcoin Organization of the Philippines, of which I am proud to be a member of, has bought into this idea wholesale: We are focused on driving not just bitcoin adoption, but a more intelligent and appealing rhetoric around it. It’s as much out of necessity as it is out of choice.
As bullish as I am on bitcoin in the Philippines – enough to invest $100,000 into the first seed round of umbrella company Satoshi Citadel Industries – I openly acknowledge that the cryptocurrency is still very much in its earliest stages here in the country. For bitcoin to expand beyond its earliest adopters and toward critical mass, we’re going to need to tether the coin onto the anti-government bandwagon, which gains momentum as fast as people can tweet and hashtags can trend.
This may also sound a bit abstract until we return to backlash that surrounded the LTFRB against Uber. At first glance, it may seem like a completely spontaneous movement – the Philippine government took away the shiny new toy of the Filipino commuter, and he in turn cried and cried loudly about it.
Yet there was nothing new with this scene – it had happened in other cities and with other peoples. As soon as a government ruled in some negative way against Uber, there was an outcry against it and an outpouring of support for Uber, until the service came to be restored in some way.
You could bet your life on this sequence because it’s a well-documented part of the Uber playbook. They rely on grassroots support to legalize, or at least, legitimize Uber as much as they do actual lobbyists and lawyers. They simply organize and channel what could would otherwise be innocuous venting into a slightly more direct response. They may provide emails, phone numbers, or Twitter handles at which supporters can air their grievances. They may encourage supporters to sign petitions. They may mass email their users to express their frustrations.
It’s a Hail Mary that succeeds every time, and one that bitcoin supporters the world round need to watch closely. Before empowering the unbanked, we must achieve the much simpler, but no less important, goal of truly speaking to our stakeholders.