SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK: Facebook Inc plans to launch a cryptocurrency called Libra next year as part of its wider efforts to expand beyond social networking into e-commerce and global payments.
Facebook said it has linked with 28 partners to form Libra Association, a Geneva-based entity governing its new digital coin, which it will launch in the first half of 2020, marketing materials and interviews with executives show.
Facebook also created Calibra, a subsidiary which will offer digital wallets connected to messaging platforms Messenger and WhatsApp to save, send and spend Libras, which will be backed by government-backed assets.
The Menlo Park, California-based company has big aspirations for Libra, but consumer privacy concerns or regulatory barriers may present significant hurdles.
Facebook hopes it will not only power transactions between established consumers and businesses globally, but offer unbanked consumers access to financial services.
The name "Libra" was inspired by Roman weight measurements, the astrological sign for justice and the French word for freedom, said David Marcus, a former PayPal executive who heads the project for Facebook.
"Freedom, justice and money, which is exactly what we're trying to do here," Marcus added.
Facebook also appears to be betting it can squeeze revenue out of its messaging services through transactions and payments, something already happening on Chinese social apps like WeChat.
Facebook, whose shares gained 0.3per cent, faces a public backlash over a series of scandals, and its new venture may face opposition from privacy advocates, consumer groups, regulators and lawmakers across the world.
'NEED TO REGULATE'
Some have called for Facebook to incur penalties, or be forcibly broken up, for mishandling user data, and not preventing Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through a social media disinformation campaign.
"This instrument for transactions will allow Facebook to collect millions and millions of data, which strengthens my conviction that there is a need to regulate the digital giants,” said French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview on Europe 1 radio.
Le Maire warned said he had asked the heads of the central banks of G7 countries to write a report on the issue by mid-July.
U.S. Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, expressed concern that through Libra, Facebook was using its scale in social networking to achieve dominance in adjacent markets like mobile payments.
Facebook has engaged with regulators in the United States and abroad about the planned cryptocurrency, company executives said. They would not specify which regulators.
The company hopes it can bring global regulators to the table by publicizing Libra, said Kevin Weil, who runs product for the initiative.
"It gives us a basis to go and have productive conversations with regulators around the world," he said. "We're eager to do that."
A U.S. regulatory source briefed on the matter said Facebook had been in communication with U.S. regulators but added it was still unclear how the currency would be structured and whether it would directly fall under any existing U.S. regulatory regimes.
The Swiss financial watchdog said it was in contact with the initiators of the Libra project but declined to comment on whether it was obtaining specific regulatory permission or status.
The Bank of England said its governor Mark Carney met Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year, but declined to give details, while the Bank of International Settlements in Basel, an umbrella group for central banks, declined to comment.
Cryptocurrencies are largely unregulated and investors have lost hundreds of millions through hacks and steep price drops, while the market faces money-laundering and terrorist financing allegations.
Markus Ferber, a senior German lawmaker in the European parliament, said in a statement that Facebook's new coin should put "regulators on high alert" and called on the European Commision to start work on regulatory framework for virtual currencies.
Bitcoin, the most well-known cryptocurrency, was created in 2008 as a digital alternative to traditional currencies, which are controlled by governments and central banks.
Since then, thousands of bitcoin alternatives have launched. But Facebook's status as a Silicon Valley behemoth that touches billions of people around the world has created significant buzz around Libra's potential.
Partners in the project include Mastercard, Visa, Spotify, PayPal, eBay, Uber and Vodafone, as well as venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz.
They hope to have 100 members by Libra's launch. Each member gets one vote on substantial decisions and firms must invest at least US$10 million to join. Facebook does not plan to maintain a leadership role after 2019.
Though there are no banks among the inaugural members, there have been discussions with lenders who are waiting to see how regulators and consumers respond to the project before deciding whether to join, said Jorn Lambert, executive vice president for digital solutions at Mastercard.
The Libra Association said it plans to raise money through a private placement in coming months.
PRIVACY, REGULATORY CONCERNS
Although Libra backers were hopeful about its prospects, some said they were aware that consumer privacy concerns or regulatory barriers may present hurdles.
Calibra will conduct compliance checks on customers who want to use Libra, using verification and anti-fraud processes that are common among banks, Facebook said.
The subsidiary will only share customer data with Facebook or external parties if it has consent, or in "limited cases" where it is necessary, Facebook said. That could include for law enforcement, public safety or general system functionality.
Transactions will cost individuals less than merchants, Facebook said, though executives declined to provide specifics.
Sri Shivananda, PayPal's chief technology officer, said the project was still in its "very, very early days." Mastercard's Lambert said much needed to happen before launch. If the project receives too much regulatory pushback, he said, "we might not launch."
(Reporting by Katie Paul and Anna Irrera; additional reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in ZURICH, Francesco Guarascio in BRUSSELS, Huw Jones, Sinead Cruise and Tom Wilson in LONDON; Myriam Rivet and Inti Landauro in PARIS; Michelle Price and Pete Schroeder in Washington DC.; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra, Lisa Shumaker, Emelia Sithole-Matarise, Alexander Smith and Nick Zieminski)