Michael J. Casey is the chairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor for blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.
The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.
Given how slowly Washington lawmakers have taken to devise a coherent, informed view of cryptocurrency, the Chair of the House Financial Services Committee’s rapid leap to action last week over Facebook’s ambitious Libra project was remarkably fast.
But let’s reflect not on the details of Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D-Calif.) urgent requests that Facebook to cease work on Libra until after hearings are held or on how European lawmakers made similar appeals. The important takeaway from these legislators’ actions is that they are able to make such demands at all. since this is not the case with truly decentralized projects.
Unlike with bitcoin, representatives in Congress can directly identify and talk to the people in charge of the Libra project. They can subpoena them and, thus, pressure them. They might start with David Marcus, head of Facebook subsidiary Calibra, but, ultimately, it’s Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who’ll give lawmakers the greatest leverage.
In this case, the buck stops with Zuck.
Now, imagine a Congressional leader calling for a halt in bitcoin development. Who exactly are they going to pressure to end an open-source project involving millions of globally spread mostly unidentifiable developers, miners and users?
This distinction – between one project with a single, identifiable authority figure and another whose governance is distributed and leaderless with a founder who has never revealed their identity – goes to the heart of a crypto community critique that the social media giant’s initiative is not censorship resistant.
When there’s someone in charge, an interested party – a policymaker, a banker, a regulator, a shareholder – can lean on them to make changes. And when the blockchain consensus model is based on a club-like permissioned membership, a coordinated effort to alter, or censor, the ledger is always possible. And if the ledger or its software can be altered by this pressure, the Libra platform can’t unconditionally promise to support open, unfettered access for users and a permissionless innovation environment for developers.
Let’s be clear: Libra’s designers have thought deeply about how to protect their project from Facebook itself, both in a real sense and that of public perception. In its commitment to decentralization, the team has put the code under an open-source license, handed the network’s governance authority to a separate Swiss-based foundation, brought in 27 external partners to work alongside Facebook as independent, permissioned nodes in the network, and verbally committed to transition to a permissionless model over time. There is a structure and roadmap in place for Libra to grow and survive regardless of its genesis as a Facebook project.
All that’s fine. But we’re still at the genesis phase, one that is and will for some time hinge on the centrality of a particularly powerful company.
The culture problem
At the risk of stating the obvious, Marcus and his team are paid by Facebook. Follow the money, as they say. But also, follow the code.
The Libra protocol’s all-important source code is now open-sourced, but it was conceived and gestated inside Facebook. So, whether the project managers and programmers resist or not, the culture of that organization will inherently feed into Libra’s design priorities.
The elephant in the room is that a drumbeat of recent news has revealed Facebook’s corporate culture to be profoundly toxic. The company’s model of surveillance capitalism has turned users into pawns in a global game of data manipulation, cultivated echo chambers of narrow-mindedness, done irreparable harm to the worthy cause of journalism, and deeply undermined our democracy.
This legacy is the unavoidable reason why people, including lawmakers, are alarmed that Facebook might be on the verge of creating a new international model for money and payments. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a fox-in-the-henhouse optic here that’s unhelpful.
that Facebook’s Libra is a bold effort to win back public trust by leveraging the accountability ingrained in blockchain technology. But at the project’s genesis phase, with no choice but to trust Facebook’s early input, that legacy of prior mistrust could easily become a huge barrier to its progress.
We should support Libra, not Facebook
Notwithstanding all the above, I actually want Libra to succeed. (Note: I also want Facebook to die. That’s not a contradiction; those two outcomes can and should be separate. In fact, it’s the nub of the issue.)
The Libra team has set its sights on achieving financial inclusion for the 2 billion adults worldwide who don’t have bank accounts. It’s a noble goal, and they are going about in an intelligent way – from a truly international, cross-border, cross-currency perspective. Bring all those people into the international economy and the payoffs could be huge, for them and for the rest of us.
And let’s face it, bitcoin has dismally failed to live up to its advocates’ promises of a financial inclusion solution. Bitcoin’s and other cryptocurrencies’ impact on the $800 billion global remittances market is puny.
Sure, uptake could rise if the off-chain Lightning Network lives up to its promise to enable larger-scale transaction-processing, if stablecoin projects resolve bitcoin’s volatility problem, and if new encryption solutions can improve both security and user experience with crypto wallets. But these solutions will take time. We need to act now.
In the end, it’s not at all clear that global person-to-person payments are a viable use case for bitcoin, perhaps because too many HODLing speculators crowd all the spenders out. And, of course, no other payments-focused cryptocurrency has put a big enough dent in the remittance market.
So, perhaps the recipe for a global broadening in payments lies with a cross-border, low-volatility international stablecoin backed by a basket of leading fiat currencies and developed with the formidable programming and marketing resources of 28 tech and financial giants. Also, when you combine Facebook’s, Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s user count, the number of potential wallets runs to 4 billion. Global network effects. Instantly.
All other things being equal – that is, if we ignore, for now, the genesis problem of Libra inheriting Facebook’s toxic roots – one could also argue that a permissioned, corporate network is the best approach for the Libra blockchain in place of a fully open, permissionless chain such as bitcoin’s or ethereum’s. The heavy lifting needed for early global traction – the software development, the marketing effort and the public policy outreach – requires that significant corporate resources be deployed in a targeted, coordinated manner that’s hard for open-source blockchain communities to achieve. There are efficiency advantages to be had from centralization.
Over time, as the project grows, Libra hopes to expand the consortium. That could undermine the coordination efficiency, but in a classic centralization-versus-decentralization tradeoff, the addition of new members – more NGOs, some banks, a workers union perhaps, and some public pension funds – will achieve greater diversity and lower collusion capacity. It’s far from perfect but the timed transition brings things closer to censorship resistance at a time in the future when it will matter -- if it they get there.
What this means for bitcoin and crypto
As an aside, I also believe Libra’s success would be a positive for bitcoin – and the past week’s price action suggests that the market sees the same.
Here’s why: Currently the one value proposition that holds well for bitcoin is that it will be a more liquid, digitally up-to-date risk-hedging vehicle than gold when people need to preserve value in something immune from political and institutional risk. That argument could be enhanced if Libra succeeds in converting billions of people to digital payment wallets, because it will more broadly establish the power of blockchain-based digital money as the way of the future. At the same time, because of its genesis as a Facebook-initiated, permissioned system, Libra will not shake the perception of being prone to political – i.e. censorship – risks. For many, then, Bitcoin, aka digital gold, will become the obvious alternative.
The currency-basket-backed Libra token is, however, a real competitor to other reserve-backed crypto-tokens, such as USDC, issued by the CENTER coalition initially formed by Circle and Coinbase, GUSD, Gemini’s stablecoin, and PAX, from Paxos.
But we can imagine events working in the latter’s favor. Developing countries like India, for example, may become hostile to a new currency entering circulation that sucks demand away from their local currencies, but they would be more accepting of a digital dollar, given that the greenback already circulates in their economies. Users, also, might be happier holding tokens pegged to single sovereign currencies rather than in a hard-to-measure basket. And if concerns about centralized control undermines trust in Libra or limits innovation, the fact that these tokens are built on truly permissionless blockchains may make them more appealing (even if you still have to trust the reserve-holder to guarantee to the price stability.)
Whatever happens, the world of money flows is mind-blowingly huge. There are $6 trillion a day in foreign exchange transactions alone. That allows plenty of room for different models, different tastes, and different trust systems for coordinating digital value exchange.
Getting our priorities straight
The bigger risk is not that Libra succeeds and enriches Mark Zuckerberg even more but that neither Libra nor one of its crypto competitors ever succeeds in breaking down the barriers to economic participation. Financial exclusion breeds poverty, which in turn breeds terrorism and war.
And if we assume that the technology, if it isn’t yet ready, will ultimately get there, then the biggest threat to that is from a policy mistake.
The subtext of both Waters’ statements and those of European lawmakers was that this private exchange system can’t be allowed to replace national currencies. Thats' not what Libra intends, but the perception that it is undermining nation states’ sovereignty over money could stoke fears and lead to a ban on Libra. And if that happens, it sets an ugly precedent for or all other competing ideas, whether it’s USDC, GUSD, PAX or DAI or something else.
The projects capacity to foster financial inclusion could also be hurt by the Financial Action Task Force's, or FATF, embrace of a new rule for exchanging cryptocurrency. If ratified by enough countries that could curtail the free flow of cryptocurrency among addresses that haven’t been through a bank-like “know your customer” process. In other words, it could pose a real barrier to Libra’s and everyone else’s dream of financial inclusion for the “unbanked.”
The bottom line: the Libra team has its work cut out, and we all have a lot riding on it. The project’s representatives must face the reality that, for now at least, the buck still stops with Zuck, and that regulators will use that against them.
We should all wish them success in trying to convince policymakers that an open-system to global financial transactions is important. (It’s encouraging that the Bank of England is taking an open-minded view, proposing that tech companies like Libra be allowed to access funds directly from central banks.)
But, by the same token, we must be vigilant against corporate power that could easily convert this important project into something more sinister. Facebook’s own history is a reminder of the risks we face.
I wish it were a different company running with this ball right now. But since it’s not, the need for all of us to take a direct interest in this project is even greater.
We must demand that our representatives provide clear-headed, informed oversight that holds corporations like this to account and curtails their monopolizing powers. But we should also expect smart, open-minded regulation that encourages companies to compete and innovate in an open system that creates opportunities for everyone on this planet.
Image Credit: David Tran Photo / Shutterstock.com