The habit of sardonic contemplation is the hardest habit of all to break

Angela Carter with the story of my life there. I can’t help but be skeptical about ‘Libra‘, Facebook’s new crytocurrency project. I’m skeptical about almost all cryptocurrencies, to be honest.

The website is marketing. It’s all about ’empowering’ the ‘unbanked’ worldwide. However, let’s dive into the white paper:

Members of the Libra Association will consist of geographically distributed and diverse businesses, nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions. The initial group of organizations that will work together on finalizing the association’s charter and become “Founding Members” upon its completion are, by industry:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, MercadoPago, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
    Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, UnionSquare Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva,Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking

We hope to have approximately 100 members of the Libra Association by the target launch in the first half of 2020.

So, all the usual suspects. How will Facebook ensure that we don’t see the crazy price volatility we’ve seen with other cryptocurrencies?

Libra is designed to be a stable digital cryptocurrency that will be fully backed by a reserve of real assets — the Libra Reserve — and supported by a competitive network of exchanges buying and selling Libra. That means anyone with Libra has a high degree of assurance they can convert their digital currency into local fiat currency based on an exchange rate, just like exchanging one currency for another when traveling. This approach is similar to how other currencies were introduced in the past: to help instill trust in a new currency and gain widespread adoption during its infancy, it was guaranteed that a country’s notes could be traded in for real assets, such as gold. Instead of backing Libra with gold, though, it will be backed by a collection of low-volatility assets, such as bank deposits and short-term government securities in currencies from stable and reputable central banks.

So it sounds like all of the value is being extracted by founding members. Now let’s move onto the technology. Any surprises there? Nope.

Blockchains are described as either permissioned or permissionless in relation to the ability to participate as a validator node. In a “permissioned blockchain,” access is granted to run a validator node. In a “permissionless blockchain,” anyone who meets the technical requirements can run a validator node. In that sense, Libra will start as a permissioned blockchain.

This is as conservative as they come, which is exactly what your strategy would be if you’re trying to transfer the entire monetary system to one that you control. People often joke about Facebook as ‘social infrastructure’, but this is a level beyond. This is Facebook as financial infrastructure.

Given both current and potential future regulatory oversight, Facebook are very careful to distance themselves from Libra. In fact, the website proudly states that, “The Libra Association is an independent, not-for-profit membership organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.”

To be fair,Josh Constine, writing for TechCrunch, notes that Facebook only gets one vote as a founding member of the Libra Association. It does actually look like they’re in it for the long-haul:

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

John Constine

Whereas before there’s always been social pressure to have a Facebook account, now there could be pressures that span identity and economic necessities, too.

Some good commentary on the hurdles ahead comes from Kari Paul for The Guardian, who writes:

The company claims it will not attempt to bypass existing regulation but instead “innovate” on regulatory fronts. Libra will use the same verification and anti-fraud processes that banks and credit cards use and will implement automated systems to detect fraud, Facebook said in its launch. It also promised to give refunds to any users who are hacked or have Libra stolen from their digital wallets.

Kari Paul

Would this be the same kind of ‘innovation’ that Uber uses to muscle its way into cities without a license? Or to muscle its way into cities without a license? Perhaps it’s the shady business practices beloved of PayPal? Both companies are founding members, after all!

Right now, developers can get access to a ‘test network’ for Libra. The system itself won’t be running until the end of 2020, so there’s a lot speculation. Here’s some sources I found useful, but you’ll need to make up your own mind. Is this a good thing?

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  1. Are we watching the birth of a new nation?

    Throughout history, one of the traits of sovereign nations is that they issue their own currency. Facebook has more members than most countries have citizens, so is Zuckerberg moving cautiously toward establishing his own country? Maybe the next step is to field a virtual “army”? Many people I know almost identify equally with membership in Facebook and their citizenship in the US.

    Just some random weird thoughts. 🙂

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