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Here's what you need to know about Facebook's controversial Libra cryptocurrency

The project has run into headwinds.

Libra Facebook : Illustration

Facebook and its partners plan to launch Libra, a new global cryptocurrency.

Getty Images

Facebook isn't getting any love for Libra. The social network and its planned cryptocurrency have endured a withering month as partners bolt from the project, details start to shift and legislators amp up their criticism of the ambitious plans. The concerns reached a crescendo on Wednesday, when a key US committee laid into CEO Mark Zuckerberg, using Libra as evidence of what they saw as the company's cavalier attitude toward everything from data breaches to misleading political ads.

"As I have examined Facebook's various problems," California Rep. Maxine Waters told Zuckerberg as she opened a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee. "I have come to the conclusion that it would be beneficial for all if Facebook concentrates on addressing its many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding any further on the Libra project."

The day only got rougher for Zuckerberg, who sat through six hours of painful lecturing delivered as inquiry. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern about the association overseeing the Libra project being based in Switzerland, rather than the US, as well as what would happen with the data Facebook collected about Libra users. California Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat, called Libra a "powerful burglary tool." New York Democrat Nydia Velázquez referenced Facebook's early motto to move fast and break things, saying, "Mr. Zuckerberg, we do not want to break the international monetary system."

Zuckerberg, who managed to keep his cool even as legislators repeatedly interrupted him and joked about his haircut, stuck to his talking points. Libra, he told mostly but not unanimously skeptical representatives, would help the world's unbanked enter the financial system. And the US needed to lead in cryptocurrencies, he said appealing to American patriotism, rather than cede the field to China. 

It's unclear where Libra will go from here, though Facebook has indicated it will press on. Here's what you need to know. 

Why does Facebook want to have a cryptocurrency? 

This isn't actually Facebook's cryptocurrency. It's the project of the Libra Association, which Facebook co-founded. The association, which will serve as a monetary authority for the cryptocurrency, says Libra's purpose is to "empower billions of people," citing 1.7 billion adults without bank accounts who could use the currency.

The Libra logo

The Libra logo.

Libra Association

But Facebook has its own interest in digital cash that predates Libra. The social network ran a virtual currency, called Credits, for about four years as a way to make payments on games played within Facebook. In May Zuckerberg said that sending money online should be as simple as sending photos. Libra is designed to make it easier and cheaper for people to transfer money online, which might attract new users to the social network. In his testimony on Wednesday, Zuckerberg acknowledged that having people use Libra would likely drive up the cost of advertising on Facebook, which would benefit the company.

Facebook may also have other plans for Libra. A new subsidiary, called Calibra, will run a wallet that will be necessary in the initial rollout. "Facebook created Calibra, a regulated subsidiary, to ensure separation between social and financial data and to build and operate services on its behalf on top of the Libra network," according to a white paper describing the Libra project. Analysts at RBC Capital Markets say those services will likely include games and commerce.

Will Facebook have direct control over the new cryptocurrency?

No. Facebook is one of the members of the Libra Association, the nonprofit that will serve as a de facto monetary authority for the currency. (Facebook's membership is through Calibra.) The association hopes to grow to 100 members, most of which will pony up $10 million to get the project going. Each member has the same vote in the association, which is headquartered in Switzerland. So Facebook won't have any more say over the association's decisions than any other member.

That said, Facebook will play an outsized role in the initial phases of the Libra project. In addition to running the Calibra wallet, Facebook expects to "maintain a leadership role through 2019." After the network is launched, Facebook says, the social network's role and responsibilities will be the same as those of any other founding member.

You said something about members of the association dropping out. What's that about?

Yup. Some of the bigger founding members appear to have gotten cold feet. Seven of the original 28 founding members -- that's a quarter of them -- dropped out before the Libra Association's inaugural meeting in Geneva on Oct. 14. The exits included PayPaleBay, Stripe and financial services giants Visa and Mastercard. The departures are big losses because they brought expertise in payments and transfers technology. The other dropouts are Mercado Pago, the online payments platform of Argentina's Mercado Libre marketplace, and Booking Holdings, an online travel company that runs sites including Priceline, Kayak and OpenTable.

In a statement, the Libra Association suggested it would weather the departures.

"Although the makeup of the association members may grow and change over time, the design principle of Libra's governance and technology, along with the open nature of this project ensures the Libra payment network will remain resilient," Dante Disparte, the Libra Association's head of policy and communication, said in a statement.

How is Libra different from other cryptocurrencies?

Let's start by addressing how Libra is similar to other cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin and ether. Like them, Libra exists entirely in digital form. You won't be able to get a Libra note or coin. And like other cryptocurrencies, Libra transactions are recorded on a software ledger, known as blockchain, that confirms each transfer. The Libra blockchain will be managed by the founding members in the early stages but evolve into a fully open system in the future.

What the Calibra wallet is expected to look like on a phone.

Here's what the Calibra wallet is expected to look like on a phone.

Facebook

Unlike bitcoin, Ethereum and some other cryptocurrencies, which aren't backed by anything and swing wildly in response to speculation, Libra will be pegged to real assets, a format widely known as a "stablecoin." (Zuckerberg acknowledged as much to lawmakers.)

Initially, the plan was to use a basket of assets to anchor Libra's value. The Libra Association hasn't said what those assets will be but indicated they will include "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. The association will buy more of the underlying assets and create, or "mint," when people want to buy Libra. It will pay people and destroy, or "burn," Libra, when people are cashing out.

Lately, David Marcus, Facebook's blockchain chief, has suggested that Libra could take on multiple denominations based on single currencies, rather than the initially proposed basket. "We could do it differently," Marcus said during a banking seminar, according to Reuters. "Instead of having a synthetic unit ... we could have a series of stablecoins, a dollar stablecoin, a euro stablecoin, a sterling pound stablecoin, etc."

Backing a currency with an asset isn't anything new. In fact, it used to be common. The US dollar was backed by gold until 1971. The value of the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar and managed by a currency board, which can issue new notes only if it has enough in reserves.

How do Libra and other cryptocurrencies compare to the US dollar?

The US dollar is tried and true and pretty much accepted anywhere in the world. Some countries like the greenback so much that they use it instead of their own money. And dollars earn interest, though at current rates that won't add up to very much.

Of course, the dollar has weaknesses. Using dollars, particularly across borders, can be expensive because banks take a cut to convert them into local currencies. If you're using dollars on a prepaid card, the credit card company is probably charging the merchant a portion of your purchase. And if the US government prints too many dollars, inflation could follow.

Despite the hype, cryptocurrencies aren't widely used. Try buying a cup of coffee with ether. (Yes, it's possible. But not widespread.) The value of cryptocurrencies is volatile, often rising or falling more than 5% a day, making it difficult to get a sense of the long-term worth of the asset.

Cryptocurrencies can make it easy to send money directly to someone. Though not private, cryptocurrencies can be pseudonymous. Some cryptocurrencies, notably bitcoin, have a cap on the number of coins that can be minted, meaning that owners of existing coins don't have to worry about the arbitrary creation of new ones.

Is this just a ploy so Facebook can get its hands on my financial data and send me even more precisely targeted ads?

We hear you. Facebook doesn't have a great reputation for privacy protection.

The social network says don't worry ... not that you expected it to say anything else. Calibra, the maker of the wallet you'll need to use Libra, is set up as a subsidiary of Facebook. The arrangement allows for Calibra to be regulated by authorities to prevent money laundering and other financial crimes. But it will also keep Calibra's financial data separate from Facebook's social data, according to the company.

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Calibra says explicitly that customer data won't be used to improve ad targeting, Facebook's money spinner. "Calibra customers' account information and financial data will not be used to improve ad targeting on the Facebook Inc. family of products," it said in a release.

The company says it will share customer data with third parties only in limited cases, such as to comply with the law, prevent fraud or facilitate payments. It also says Calibra will seek customer consent before using Facebook data to improve features.

Originally published June 18, 2 a.m. PT.
Updates, 12:15 p.m.: Adds reaction from European officials; 4:05 p.m.: Includes reactions from US officials; June 19: Adds comments from Markus Ferber; 1:08 p.m.: Includes scheduling of Senate hearing; July 3: Adds David Marcus comments; July 15: Includes information about government hearings; Oct. 24: Adds news of Zuckerberg's testimony, includes section about partners dropping out of Libra.