Blockchain

Project Libra: What We Know About Facebook’s Forthcoming Cryptocurrency

By Kirill Bryanov

Over the past few months, it appeared that Telegram has been comfortably leading the clandestine race between major social platforms that have been quietly working on their native crypto tokens, with its Telegram Open Network (TON) making strides toward its October 2019 launch deadline. The latest avalanche of news from Facebook, however, makes this lead look less convincing, as it becomes apparent that the social media giant’s blockchain project is also well underway.

After a series of indirect cues suggesting that Facebook’s long-rumored fintech initiative is in motion, a massive breakthrough came with a detailed report from The Information, which mainly relied on anonymous sources to unearth many newsworthy particulars related to the forthcoming token. A European Facebook executive validated some of the details shortly after, confirming that a white paper outlining the cryptocurrency’s essentials is set to be published on June 18. Here is what we know of the future coin’s design and governance, as well as its potential implications for the digital economy, according to some leading voices in the crypto space.

Buildup

According to The Information’s report penned by Alex Heath and Jon Victor, Facebook’s crypto project kicked off roughly a year ago when the company brought in David Marcus, former president of PayPal, to lead the charge. The e-payments giant would go on to become a major source of manpower for the initiative, enhanced with some additions of Coinbase alumni on the compliance side. In early 2019, Facebook incorporated the entire team previously employed by a blockchain startup Chainspace. MIT professor Christian Catalini has been reportedly appointed as the project’s chief economist.

Overall, staff deployed on the project is estimated to be at least a hundred strong, with some more open positions still up. In contrast to Facebook’s normally open-space culture, employees working on the blockchain initiative are reportedly concentrated in a separate building behind closed doors.

Despite earlier reports by the BBC suggesting that Facebook’s prospective cryptocurrency has been known internally as GlobalCoin, The Information’s dossier makes no mention of this label. The publication’s sources insist on another codename that has also previously been circulated in the media, Libra.

In addition to registering a company called Libra Networks in Switzerland in May, Facebook bought out the trademark from a namesake blockchain startup. TechCrunch’s Josh Constine hypothesized that the name could be wordplay on the abbreviation LIBOR, which stands for the London Inter-bank Offered Rate, a benchmark for interbank borrowing. Constine said, “LIBOR is for banks, while Libra is meant to be for the people.”

The Information’s sources revealed that Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has taken a great personal interest in the crypto project, while some others among the firm’s C-suite, such as chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and chief financial officer David Wehner, remained skeptical.

The Libra team reportedly presented three possible investment scenarios to Facebook leadership, ranging from low to high commitment, and Zuckerberg ultimately opted for the maximum investment route. Facebook CEO’s attention to building a payment system on top of the platform fits well into the proclaimed turn toward facilitating more personal and small-group forms of communication.

Token properties and uses

As a borderless currency with no transaction fees when used within the Facebook ecosystem (Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram), the prospective coin is poised to make a considerable impact in developing countries, where the company is looking to primarily market it, according to The Information’s report.

While the social platform’s existing user base exceeds 2 billion people globally, a significant portion of it come from regions where traditional financial institutions are not quite reliable, and fees on cross-border remittance payments are often exorbitant. If users come to associate the digital coin in their smartphone messaging app with real value, Libra could become a game-changer in areas such as cross-border payments, casual Venmo-style transactions within friend groups and e-commerce generally, as more and more merchants join the realm of Facebook-powered social platforms to sell their goods directly.

Prominent blockchain advocate and Wall Street veteran Caitlin Long, who was among the first to share her vision of Facebook’s cryptocurrency in light of the latest news, wrote in a Forbes op-ed that “Facebook’s cryptocurrency will be a powerful force for good in developing countries.” Long argued that, by providing a more reliable store-of-value than central banks, Facebook’s stablecoin would pressure financial authorities into monetary discipline.

In order to maintain value, according to The Information investigation, Facebook’s coin will be pegged not just to one currency, but to a basket of several currencies and low-risk securities. The company’s head of financial services and payment partnerships for Northern Europe, Laura McCracken, has also confirmed this in an informal conversation with a reporter from German magazine WirtschaftsWoche, although nothing is known yet about the basket’s composition.

The Information’s report also specifies that Facebook plans to provide physical infrastructure — in the form of ATM-style terminals — to enable users to exchange the digital asset for fiat currencies. In addition, Facebook employees will be reportedly given an option to receive part of their salaries in the token, a detail that Gizmodo’s Victoria Song called the resurgence of the “company town dream” in the digital age.

Governance and decentralization

These days it is difficult to find a person who is not alerted to Facebook’s control of (and, sometimes, questionable practices of handling) user data. The fact that the company’s ambitions now extend to a comparable degree of control over online payments might appear sinister. Anticipating pushback from vigilant users and regulators alike, the company seems to have introduced a degree of decentralization into the way its cryptocurrency governance model is laid out.

According to The Information’s report, for the past few months, the social networking company has been talking to dozens of financial institutions and tech companies, soliciting their participation in an independent foundation tasked with the new crypto payment system’s oversight. The measure should promote trust in the system, as well as pacify antitrust regulators. Sunita Parasuraman, who has worked as Facebook’s corporate head of treasury operations, will reportedly manage the foundation’s treasury.

Unsurprisingly, the privilege of validating transactions on Facebook coin’s ledger will be reserved for a selected few. A license to operate a node on the network will reportedly cost outside entities $10 million each, and will come with a right to delegate representatives to the foundation and participate in the network’s governance. The network is expected to launch with 100 nodes, possibly with a prospect of further decentralization as more nodes join in. The Information’s sources claim that Facebook will use licensing fees to establish the initial pool of value for the coin.

It is not yet clear how node operators will be rewarded in the absence of transaction fees and The Information’s claim that Facebook is not planning to use the payment system for ad targeting. The latter notion can strain skeptics’ credulity, given the company’s business model and the wealth of valuable data on purchasing habits that the currency use will generate. One of the possible answers is the interest that will accrue from the assets underlying the token — and node operators will likely hold a lot of it.

Furthermore, Long predicted that Facebook will share the generated interest profits with all users and holders of its token in order to avoid high-profile accusations of simply pocketing it, which would immediately follow otherwise. As a collateral effect, Long writes, this might turn public attention to the issue of corporate welfare in the U.S. banking system: The Federal Reserve, it turns out, pays its member banks 2.35% for interest on excess reserves.

Regulation

Having learned the hard way how much of a trouble regulatory scrutiny can present, Facebook has been working closely with financial authorities across the board to ensure compliance. The new cryptocurrency is believed to incorporate solid identity verification and have fraud prevention mechanisms in place.

According to Long, it means that Facebook will leverage a massive “tax data honeypot” for multiple governments, which may attempt to trade regulatory latitude for a certain degree of access to this data. In the big picture, the project will likely highlight the archaic character of many extant financial regulations and set in motion processes of gradually making them more up to date. The ride, however, will be bumpy, as the launch of Facebook’s payment system will spark heated debates about privacy and corporate power in the context of money.

What to make of this?

Over in the crypto Twitter-sphere, intense debate immediately broke out, as opinion leaders began to figure out who the new coin’s immediate competition might be and whom it will obliterate. Charlie Shrem, a founding member of the Bitcoin Foundation, opined that Libra is a direct threat to Ripple’s XRP:

Over in the crypto Twitter-sphere, intense debate immediately broke out, as opinion leaders began to figure out who the new coin’s immediate competition might be and whom it will obliterate. Charlie Shrem, a founding member of the Bitcoin Foundation, opined that Libra is a direct threat to Ripple’s XRP:

Weiss Ratings’ lead cryptocurrency specialist, Juan M. Villaverde, formulated the central question somewhat differently in an email to Cointelegraph:

“Is Facebook really moving into the cryptocurrency space? Or is it merely porting some crypto technology over to the traditional fintech industry?”

Villaverde sees all indications that it is going to be the latter. However, it is not necessarily a bad thing, as Facebook seems to be serious about delivering user-friendly financial services to millions of users who have virtually no other access to banking.

The fact that deployment of the company’s cryptocurrency is set to start from India, the nation with the second-largest unbanked population in the world, suggests that Facebook is ready to go in that direction. However, we should make no mistake with regard to Facebook coin’s relation to decentralized digital currencies, Villaverde said:

“Facebook is looking to provide payment services to its customers. To do so, it must act as a counterparty and custodian for every payment that goes through its platform. It must have the last word on any payment users make or seek to make. Just like a bank, credit card company or PayPal. In sum, the Facebook coin will compete with established payment processors. Cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin or Ethereum, are built from the ground up to disrupt them. The Facebook coin will be another layer built atop the existing financial system — another intermediary, another counterparty, plus all the corresponding risks. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are slated to render every one of those layers obsolete.”

In her op-ed, Long offered a somewhat more optimisticvision of the Libra project. She thinks that Facebook’s cryptocurrency will become a Trojan horse that will eventually benefit bitcoin:

“Facebook’s foray into cryptocurrency will likely end up being a beneficial detour on the path to broader bitcoin adoption. Bring it on!”

Facebook’s initiative, Long predicts, will dramatically increase the pace at which people learn about cryptocurrency in general, and when the general public becomes educated enough, it will likely opt for bitcoin, which is scarce, rather than Facebook’s token, which is not.

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