It's been the buzz of Crypto Twitter and tech blogs for months, but today we have details of Facebook's next step toward world domination — and the next move that's most definitely going to raise eyebrows among regulators in Washington.
The company released a white paper Tuesday, and a fancy website, about Libra, a so-called "stablecoin" that Facebook wants to launch in the next six to twelve months, with the backing of a bunch of big corporations including Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, Uber, eBay, and Coinbase. The idea was to create a foundation or consortium in which the buy-in is $10 million apiece, and which will de-centralize oversight of the currency — and thereby, Facebook hopes, allay fears that this is just Facebucks, as PC Mag has been calling it. The consortium is to be based in Geneva, and it's called the Libra Association. The idea is to stabilize the value of the coin by investing the consortium's money into stable fiat currencies from around the world.
While Mark Zuckerberg is likely just trying to compete with WeChat and bring a native payment system and cryptocurrency into the world of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, the rest of us are wondering why we would want Facebook to launch its own global currency at all. As the Associated Press reports, the company has also created a subsidiary called Calibra that will operate digital wallets — a la the Winklevoss Twins' Gemini (Zuckerberg reportedly took a meeting with his old enemies in recent months to discuss this).
"No single company should operate this," as Facebook's cryptocurrency chief David Marcus tells the AP. "It should be a public good."
The AP also mentions the potential for Libra partners to "create incentives to get people and merchants to use the coin," like Uber could offer discounts for paying with it, but these remain to be seen.
The privacy concerns arise with the fact that all crypto transactions are technically kept in a blockchain "ledger," and as New York Magazine writes today, it remains strange that "the most powerful private surveillance apparatus on the planet [has entered] into a sector created by and for obsessively secretive cypherpunk libertarian cranks." But the company insists that all transactions will be deeply encrypted, and "if people use Calibra or similar wallets, their individual transactions won't be visible on the Libra blockchain," per the AP.
Building a successful stablecoin could give Facebook power beyond the simple revenue stream of transaction fees. NY Mag sees Facebook's main competitor here as China, and the creation of Libra is a move to get ahead of a global superpower that is also trying to establish "a blockchain-based digital currency for a billion-plus-member economy" which is loosely pegged to various stable world currencies. This means Libra could potentially, eventually, replace the US dollar as the currency of choice for global reserves.
Now even if Facebook isn't the sole backer behind it, this does seem like it's always going to be seen as Zuckerberg's project. And who knows?! Maybe it will fail. Or maybe when Facebook goes under the microscope by the FTC in the coming year, as it is expected to do, the government could just say, "Hey, we don't think you need to be in the cryptocurrency business too."