Facebook unveiled plans on Tuesday for a new global cryptocurrency called Libra, pledging to deliver a stable virtual money that lives on smartphones and brings over a billion “unbanked” people into the financial system.
The Libra coin plan, backed by financial and nonprofit partners, represents an ambitious new initiative for the world's biggest social network with the potential to bring crypto-money out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
Facebook and some two dozen partners released a prototype of Libra as an open source code for developers interested in weaving it into apps, services or businesses ahead of a rollout as global digital money next year.
The nonprofit Libra Association based in Geneva will oversee the blockchain-based coin, maintaining a real-world asset reserve to keep its value stable.
The initiative has the potential to allow more than a billion “unbanked” people around the world access to online commerce and financial services at minimal cost, said Libra Association head of policy and communications Dante Disparte.
“We believe if you give people access to money and opportunity at the lowest cost, the way the internet itself did in the past with information, you can create a lot more stability than we have had up until now,” Disparte told AFP.
Facebook will be just one voice among many in the association, but is separately building a digital wallet called Calibra.
“We view this as a complement to Facebook's mission to connect people wherever they are; that includes allowing them to exchange value,” Calibra vice president of operations Tomer Barel told AFP.
“Many people who use Facebook are in countries where there are barriers to banking or credit.”
But the move raised questions about how such a new money would be regulated.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said such digital money could never replace sovereign currencies.
“The aspect of sovereignty must stay in the hands of states and not private companies which respond to private interests,” Le Maire told Europe 1 radio.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said Facebook's new currency would have to withstand scrutiny of its operational resilience and not allow itself to be used for money laundering or terror financing.
ING economists Teunis Brosens and Carlo Cocuzzo said in a research note it's not clear what Libra is or how it may be overseen.
“Given that Libra is not denominated in domestic currency, but reflects a currency basket, it is probably more like security,” they wrote.
“This takes us right back to the discussion that has been haunting cryptocurrency for years: is it a security or something else?”
Backed by real cash
Libra Association debuted with 28 members including Mastercard, Visa, Stripe, Kiva, PayPal, Lyft, Uber and Women's World Banking.
Calibra is being built into Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp with a goal of letting users send Libra as easily as they might fire off a text message.
Libra learned from the many other cryptocurrencies that have preceded it such as bitcoin and is designed to avoid the roller-coaster valuations that have attracted speculation and caused ruin.
Real-world currency will go into a reserve backing the digital money, the value of which will mirror stable currencies such as the US dollar and the euro, according to its creators.
“It is backed by a reserve of assets that ensures utility and low volatility,” Tomer said.
The Libra Association will be the only entity able to “mint or burn” the digital currency, maintaining supply in tune with demand and assets in reserve, according to Barel.
“It is not about trusting Facebook, it is effectively trust in the association's founding organizations that this is independent and democratic,” Disparte said.
The launch comes with Facebook seeking to move past a series of lapses on privacy and data protection which have tarnished its image and sparked scrutiny from regulators around the world.
Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has promised a new direction for Facebook built around smaller groups, private messaging and payments.
The new Calibra digital wallet promises to eventually give Facebook opportunities to build financial services into its offerings, offer to expand its own commerce and let more small businesses buy ads at the social network.
“We certainly see long-term value for Facebook,” Barel said.
Facebook said it will not make any money through Libra or Calibra but that it is seeking to “drive adoption and scale” before exploring ways to monetize the new system.
Financial information at Calibra will be kept strictly separate from social data at Facebook and won't be used to target ads, Calibra vice president of product Kevin Weil told AFP.
Libra will be a regulated currency, subject to local laws in markets regarding fraud, guarding against money laundering and more, according to Weil.
According to Facebook and its partners, local currencies and Libra may be swapped at currency exchange houses or other businesses.
And the ubiquity of smartphones means digital wallets for Libra could make banking and credit card services and e-commerce available in places where they don't now exist.
Analyst and cryptocurrency investor Lou Kerner said Facebook's move has the potential to open the door for cryptocurrency to a wider public.
“What Facebook is really good at, is making things really simple to use,” Kerner told AFP.
“And that's what is super exciting for the crypto industry, is somebody comes along who understands user experience and has billions of users that they can roll this out to.”