Facebook’s New Global Cryptocurrency, Libra, Hits a Regulatory Roadblock

  • In June Facebook unveiled its plans to launch a new cryptocurrency named Libra, planned to be rolled out in the first half of 2020.
  • Despite efforts to soothe privacy and antitrust anxiety, backlash to the proposal is relentless.
  • A recent Financial Times report suggests that some of its backers are due to cut ties in the wake of severe regulatory scrutiny.

Facebook have announced plans to roll out a new cryptocurrency, called Libra, in the first half of the coming year. The new digital currency can be conceived as a sort of fusion between Bitcoin and fintech services such as Revolut – users will be able to exchange their money for Libra coin and send and receive funds instantly via Facebook’s messenger services, Messenger and Whatsapp. But its ambitions are massive. The long-term aim of Facebook is to build a global digital currency and render worldwide transactions fee-free, instantaneous, and unrestricted.

Libra is an effort by the social media company to build a payments system in the west akin to Tencent and Alibaba’s success in China. There the proliferation of mobile payments – facilitated by Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay (together accounting for 93% of Chinese mobile payments) – are bringing the country ever-closer to complete cashlessness. WeChat itself originated in 2011 primarily as an instant messaging app, and only integrated a digital wallet in 2014 to compete with Alipay. In this sense Facebook appears to be following a similar route in its quest to dominate the payments industry and quash cryptocurrency and fintech rivals alike – by offering Libra to the 2.4 billion users it already has on its platform.

Facebook seeks to win users over and capture a huge share of the financial payments industry by solving the flaws inherent in Bitcoin – the decade-old and ceaselessly volatile cryptocurrency suffers from long waits for transactions to complete, huge energy costs in said transactions, and an erratic and unpredictable price. The sending and receiving of Libra coin is to be near-instant, intended to consume as little energy as standard debit card transactions, and will be tied to several global currencies in order that its price remain stable.

In order to mitigate privacy concerns or uneasiness that signing up to Libra grants Facebook a disconcerting amount of access to peoples’ financial activity, Facebook says it will decentralise all decision-making related to its currency. A diverse group of 28 firms is to form the Libra Association (including Mastercard, Visa, Spotify, and Uber) responsible for monitoring Libra’s blockchain – that is, the database which keeps track of who owns which Libra coin. Facebook claims that relinquishing exclusive control of access to peoples’ financial data to this group of firms ought to soothe privacy-conscious users’ fears. It’s an uphill battle though, particularly given sustained criticism of its handling of users’ data following the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year. This is partly responsible for the decline Facebook is seeing in usership. In Ireland, the last nine months has seen a drop of 300,000 users – mostly young people. “[Facebook] have twice as many over 50s than they do people under 18,” according to Newstalk’s Jess Kelly.

This trend away from the social network does not bode well for ambitious business ventures on Facebook’s part. But it’s the red tape associated with establishing a new currency that presents the biggest obstacle to the firm’s success. An official investigation into Libra has been opened by EU antitrust agents, and a backlash from data-protection officials across the globe fuelled by privacy- and competition-concerns is raging.

The sting of such regulatory opposition is beginning to be felt at Facebook. In a Financial Times report last week entitled Facebook’s Libra backers look to distance themselves from project, FT claimed that three of Libra’s founding backers professed apprehension about the intense scrutiny of regulators, and a desire to cut off ties with the project altogether. Worsening tension between Facebook (who have “become exasperated by the [project’s] members, according to two people close to the project,”) and the Libra Association may herald a delay in Libra’s arrival, particularly if others in the Libra group share their more vocal colleagues’ dismay. If the tension devolves into outright enmity, perhaps Libra will be shelved altogether, with an augmented form of a mobile payments system to be developed in its place.

Whether Facebook surmounts the tide of regulatory hostility or not, its drive to diversify away from advertising revenue into the global payments system is clear. If this ambition is to successfully take shape in the form of Libra in the next nine months, or some other mutation of same further down the line remains to be seen.

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