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Facebook unveils its Libra cryptocurrency as politicians raise eyebrows

The social network’s new cryptocurrency could fuel its e-commerce ambitions.

Libra Facebook : Illustration

With Libra, Facebook is getting into the cryptocurrency business.

Getty Images

Facebook changed the way we communicate. Now the social media giant wants to change how its roughly 2.4 billion users think about using a cryptocurrency to make everyday purchases.

Earlier this week, the social network and its partners unveiled a global digital coin called Libra, confirming details of a project that had been leaking out in dribs and drabs for months. Libra, which will be managed by a governing body and backed by stable financial assets, is expected to debut in the first half of 2020.

Facebook and the Libra Association, the body that will govern the coin, hope to create a stable digital money that will give users confidence in its value and won't be subject to the wild gyrations of more recognized cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin. The group is also trying to alleviate concerns that Libra could be used for money laundering or black market transactions, saying it would work with authorities around the world to ensure Libra conforms to regulations in multiple countries and jurisdictions. 

The efforts to woo politicians and regulators, however, seemed to fall flat. Almost immediately after the announcement, US and European politicians expressed concern about Libra, saying Facebook's history of privacy problems raised questions about whether it was a fit steward of people's financial data.

Rep. Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said Facebook "has repeatedly shown a disregard for the protection and careful use of this data." The social media company faces a record-setting fine of up to $5 billion from the Federal Trade Commission, which has been investigating Facebook for allegedly failing to protect user privacy. A Senate committee has scheduled a hearing on July 17 to discuss Libra.

In Europe, the reaction was similar. Bruno Le Maire, France's finance minister, told Europe 1 radio that Libra was fine if its use was limited to transactions, according to AFP. But the social network shouldn't be allowed to create a "sovereign currency" that could be used to issue debt or serve other functions associated with government-issued money. Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney referenced Libra at a meeting of Portugal, saying, "Anything that works in this world will become instantly systemic and will have to be subject to the highest standards of regulation," according to Bloomberg.

Facebook's cryptocurrency ambitions are the latest example of the social network's efforts to cement itself in the daily lives of its users. If Facebook and its partners can persuade people to use Libra, the social network could attract new users, keep them online longer and generate more revenue outside of advertising, which made up 99% of its $15 billion in sales in the first three months of 2019.

The Libra project underscores Facebook's efforts to encourage its users to spend more time on the site or with its services by allowing them to send money, purchase products and sell their used possessions on its platform. If they do so, Facebook could create revenue streams beyond its dominant advertising business, which made up 99% of its $15 billion in sales in the first three months of 2019.

"Payments is foundational to doing commerce," said Lisa Ellis, an analyst at MoffettNathanson Research. "This would be a significant step toward enabling that."

The move in cryptocurrency comes as Facebook doubles down on its private spaces. The company plans to make it possible for users to send messages without switching between it's Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services. Calibra, the digital wallet Facebook created to store Libra, will be built into Messenger and WhatsApp, though not Instagram at first.

How quickly Facebook can rope in Libra users is an open question. Using existing cryptocurrencies to pay for everyday purchases is far from common, despite efforts to make those transactions mainstream. Many cryptocurrencies, most notably bitcoin, swing wildly in value and exist in a confusing regulatory environment. They've been used for speculation or in criminal activities.

Facebook and the Libra Association say they're working to address these concerns. Libra will be backed by a reserve of assets consisting of "bank deposits and government securities in currencies from stable and reputable central banks." That suggests major global currencies, like the dollar and the euro, which don't fluctuate violently day to day.

Facebook isn't the first tech company to integrate payments into a service. Line, a Japanese messaging app, launched a digital token called Link last year. Chinese messaging app WeChat lets users link credit cards to make payments and money transfers, but banned cryptocurrency transactions.

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Facebook's size and international reach, however, give it an advantage, according to analysts. Roughly 2.7 billion people use Facebook or Messenger, WhatsApp or Instagram. By contrast, Line has less than a quarter of the number of users and WeChat has about 1 billion users.

Dave Jevans, CEO of CipherTrace, a cryptocurrency security company, says Libra could convince other social media platforms to enter financial services.

"This starts to begin the conversation around social media platforms, which have been big political platforms over the last three or four years, becoming financial platforms to enable a global society," Jevans said.

Creating a digital wallet

Screenshots of Facebook's digital wallet, Calibra.

Facebook's digital wallet, Calibra, is expected to launch in 2020.

Facebook

Users will download the Calibra app onto their iPhone or Android devices, or add the wallet into Messenger or WhatsApp.

To prevent fraud, Facebook will also ask users to verify their identity by uploading an ID such as a driver's license. The company will encrypt this information and may retain it, depending on local regulations. Users can then link their bank accounts to the app to exchange, for example, US dollars for Libra. The wallet will automatically convert the dollar figure into the Libra amount.

Over time, people could use Libra coins to purchase an item on Marketplace, make a donation or buy a product from retailers, said Kevin Weil, vice president of product for blockchain at Facebook. The wallet, which is still being built, may also be integrated into Instagram direct message at some point, he said.

"There's a lot of overlap between the way you use a wallet and the way you would use a messaging app that makes them great first steps for us," Weil said.

Facebook plans to offer incentives to get consumers and businesses to use Libra. A business could get cash back in Libra coins if it processes a transaction using the virtual currency. Early users may get some Libra coins when they set up an account and for referring friends to the app.

Sending money across borders could be cheaper using Libra than conventional banks, Weil says, adding that the fees for transfers will be less than a penny. By comparison, the average cost of sending $200 was 7% in 2018, according to the World Bank. It's unclear whether there will be a limit to the amount of money that people will be able to send using Calibra.

The Calibra wallet will also work with other wallets that accept Libra, similar to the way email can be sent across services, such as between Google and Yahoo.

"It's that same kind of interoperability that you have between wallets in the Libra ecosystem," Weil said.

Managing a new cryptocurrency

Facebook won't have direct control over Libra. Instead, it will be part of a nonprofit headquartered in Switzerland called the Libra Association that will oversee the cryptocurrency. The association has 28 founding members, including PayPal, Visa, Uber, Coinbase, Andreessen Horowitz and Mercy Corps, but aims to have 100 by 2020.

Logo of the Libra Association, showing the founding members.

The founding partners of the Libra Association include Mastercard and Visa.

Facebook

Businesses and venture capital firms that are part of the association will invest at least $10 million, which will be used to fund the group's operations and Libra incentives. 

Each member will maintain a node, the servers that process transfers and power the Libra blockchain. All members will be represented on the Libra Association Council and have one vote, limiting Facebook's influence over the cryptocurrency.

Facebook and its partners won't get a cut of cryptocurrency transactions or use the financial data from users for ad targeting. But making it easier for people to spend or send money could attract users or increase engagement, which would be attractive to advertisers. Businesses that use Libra might also have more money to spend on Facebook ads. In the future, the Libra Association could offer a range of financial services.

David Marcus, who leads Facebook's cryptocurrency efforts, said Libra might be more popular among people who don't have access to financial services in the early days. About 1.7 billion adults worldwide still don't have access to a bank account, according to data from the World Bank.

"The effect of having a more competitive, vibrant financial system with, you know, more players, more services and the diversity of offerings I think will bring in many more people," he said. "But it will take time."

Originally published June 18. 
Update, June 20: Adds reaction from politicians and regulators.