Perspectives on (Ca-) Libra # 1: Getting rid of three smokescreens

This week the world has witnessed the announcement by Facebook of Calibra, a digital currency wallet and company. The wallet holds Libra, a virtual currency, with the idea to be used globally. Its distribution and use will be further promoted, organised and executed via an association of partners, called the Libra-association. The information pack ( download here) also outlines more technical details on programming languages, future plans and committment to regulatory compliance.

Immediately thereafter, a storm of analysis emerged in order to understand the initiative. Quite some politicians and regulators are eager to quickly respond and that is completely understandable.

Facebook is not just the grocery shop around the corner, dabbling about with some new technology. It has allocated significant resources to the development of Libra. With a customer base of at least 2 billion (close to 25% of the worlds population) it is an entity that in itself acts as a world-wide platform and does not need others to achieve a network effect.

Perspectives as the approach for this series of blogs
As the Libra-initiative can be viewed from many angles, I plan to write this series of blogs and label them as perspectives. It’s always helpful to view things from a couple of angles and that is precisely what I intend to do. This means we will be looking into definitions, regulatory regimes, business case and previous historical analogies. And as we go along I will take stock of developments and responses.

As you may notice, I will be judging Facebook by a very high standard. The reason for that is simple. If an organisation has so many resources available, I expect them to come up with careful, consistent and accurate thinking, wording and technology. And as a sneak preview: this is not what we got over the last week.

While the maturity of the exercise may look impressive to some observers, the huge inconsistencies and home-brewed interpretations of what a blockchain is cannot be a coincidence. We can see an announcement that Calibra will become available in 2020, while the state of thinking mid 2019 is ‘early in the process’. This is accompanied by a PR-smokescreen on cryptocurrencies, that doesn’t help our understanding the effort.

So the very first challenge that exists, when discussing the Ca-Libra virtual currency initiative, is to separate fact from fiction and to be precise in terminology. That is why this first blog seeks to get rid of the three biggest smokescreens that we were facing this week.

Smokescreen #1: libra association is not an ecosytem but a payment association with added functionalities
If we start with the source of payments revenue for Facebook, this originally all boiled down to payments related to Flash games (in 2015). But technical problems in Flash would hit their revenue. So they quickly understood the need to be more flexible and to be able to operate different business propositions and solutions. Therefore they moved towards licenses in the US ( cash via messenger) and in Europe. They also moved the US e-cash system to France and UK, but announced 2 months ago that they would drop it in Europe per June 15, 2019.

And now, per June 18, 2019 Facebook essentially announce to re-up their game, but not with electronic euro’s but with a self-invented world currency, backed by other currencies and liquid financial instruments. To blow away the first smokescreen, let’s analyse the difference between the old Facebook e-cash or e-money with fiat currencies and the new Facebook libra, as distributed by Libra Association.

What we can see is that Facebook seeks to move the fiat-currency of its e-money system out of its direct control and responsibility as an issuer. Facebook Payments Inc is currenlty the entity that is responsible and guards all the relevant rules with respect to working with the e-currency. But in the new construct Facebook Calibra is merely one validator that can use the Libra-system under open source rules. So we see the fiat-e-currency companies of Facebook stepping aside and a new Libra association entering the playing field. At the same time, the technology shifts from in-house proprietary systems to an open-source codebase in the hands of no one in particular.

Bringing the currency to the public or ducking the issuance responsibilities?
Of course one could frame the above shift of roles as bringing a currency to the public. Facebook is however dumping its core-responsibilities with respect to shaping and operating a currency-system and moving a lot of activities to an ill-equipped new Libra association with no track record at all.

While Calibra states that it will comply with all relevant legislation, we can see that the actual information of the Libra Association in this respect is pretty thin. They issue a currency-like digital token/record but do not explain which legal regimes would apply. Also their actual claim as whether they are a not-for-profit organisation does not align fully with this twitter thread outlines that it is a regular company with wider statutes.

If it looks/talks/qucks like a payments scheme, it is a …?
In payment terms — which is what Facebook says to be aiming for — the Libra Association is essentially a payment scheme. Such a scheme defines the rules for an ecosystem that wishes to transact electronically. Examples are Visa and Mastercard, organisations that need to abide with a lot of rules in order to avoid them becoming a place of illegal cartel-agreements on price and illegitimate contract terms to end users.

With payment schemes we have huge and long discussions and deliberations of price levels. There is the obligation to ensure that there is no obligation to buy processing power from the scheme itself. There are policy views and obligations that schemes should be interoperable and open. And then there is a mountain of rules that specifies how to use the brand and which technical criteria must be complied with in order to be allowed to connect to the system.We find very little of this in the current papers on the association.

What makes this payment scheme special, a payment-scheme-plus ?
What sets Libra apart from Visa and Mastercard is that the association is effectively an issuer of the currency. This means a blurring of operational roles and scheme responsibilities, which is generally considered as a bad practice in governance terms. But what is most striking is that the membership rules are not geared towards controlling/monitoring and creating a safe and sound currency. We find no mention of specific prudential licenses or governance/quality certifications required for different roles under the scheme and as a member (or shareholder).

The only thing we read is: we seek to expand, we want to incentivise the use of the token and for this we don’t want the small players in the market. We aim for the big players with market power. We separate the wholesale participants from the retail participants (allowing for price upticks). And then — the devil is in the details — the customer pricing format is based on a FOMO-principle (do you want your transaction processed: please throw in some more gas).

I am curious what reasoning Facebook and its founding members have had in this respect. The whole association setup is ostensibly aimed at market dominance, without proper governance safeguards and without any guarantees as to operational security and safety and soundness of the system. If I were a competition regulator I would jump at the opportunity to wait for the founders to sign the participation agreement and deliver a letter to their doorstep, next day, to start investigating the market abuse that might be at play here.

Governance claims and reality: a scheme is a supertanker without effective governance
I have been reading all the statements on the public structure of the association with a lot of amusement. Facebook is claiming that it will bring the intellectual property into the public domain and of course all the members of the association have a voice. So this seems to be well arranged with room for consultation, discussion and changing course.

The reality is completely different, as everybody in the banking sector knows. There is sufficient experience with clearing houses and associations (even with a relatively small number of shareholders) that are unable to essentially change course, once set up. Large associations like EPC, Visa, Mastercard, are effectively orphans without parents. Stakeholders are always irritated about the fact that these associations set their own course and associations always claim their shareholders have no vision. Bottom line: if you transfer your Libra-currency design into this domain, it is quite likely to be persistent. So don’t expect any radical changes after this one is live; it will be gradual evolution from here onwards.

Not just a scheme for the payment instrument, but the unit of account (and a security as well)
There is another difference between Libra and Mastercard and Visa that I would like to highlight. The regular payment schemes seek to transact efficiently, taking existing currencies/structures as a basis. But this scheme introduces a new currency itself and regulates this currency via the management of reserve assets. It demonstrates that the aim of Facebook is to design its own Facebook buck, push it into the public domain and then profit from the benefits of having their own unit of account in place, while hiding behind the members and the open source philosophy when things go wrong.

A specific element in the scheme is that the unit of account is backed by a basket of currencies and financial instruments. Effectively this means that if you buy one Libra, you buy a couple of foreign currencies. Or put differently: you participate in an open ended money market / investment fund. And you use the digital representation of your participation in this fund as a means of payment.

This is a bit of double work as this means the association and the scheme are not just subject to payments legislation but also to investments/securities legislation. But it is legally possible: the payment would legally not be a discharge of obligations via a financial payment, but via a payment in kind (currency basket).

So what do we see here?

The Libra association is a mere manager of the governance and operational arrangements and activities that come with using the virtual currency Libra and participating in the Libra scheme. This Libra scheme is a private and commercial arrangement which:
— defines a unit of account for a new virtual currency: the Libra,
— defines the asset mix that backs one currency unit,
— lays out the distribution and management rules of the currency units and reserve funds,
— lays out commercial rules and does a private placement to further promote the use of the Libra by giving them away (for free or at a discount).

The Libra association itself will be steering future technical development and is charged with the project goal to move the whole infrastructure towards a permissionless setup. This is completely impossible (as these associations act with oil-tanker dynamics) but that brings us to the next smokescreen.

Smokescreen #2: Libra is not a blockchain, not a cryptocurrency but a digital virtual currency /financial instrument
It was fascinating to see that the carefully crafted and prepared introduction of the Libra sought to position it as blockchain and as a cryptocurrency. This creates a lot of noise. Also, the use of similar words for different concepts and organisations is confusing.

We should distinguish between:
1- Calibra, the organisation, a 100 % subsidiary of Facebook, acting as a validator node,
2- Calibra, the branded digital wallet developed by Calibra to carry the Libra virtual currency,
3- Libra, the digital currency that will be in the Calibra wallet
4- Libra, the reserve pool of assets that backs the digital currency,
5- Libra Core, the Network or ‘ blockchain’ that forms the core operating technology for clients and validators,
6- Move, the programming language developed for the Libra Network.
7- Libra, the association governing, promoting and executing the virtual currency system,
8- Libra members, big commercial players that may join the Libra association, provided that they are a validator.

What struck me in the communication is the flagrant re-definitioning by Facebook of the concepts blockchain and cryptocurrency. Facebook really wants to be seen as doing some cryptocurrency stuff. But they don’t. Just for fun I will be comparing the Facebook FAQ with the wisdom of the Wiki-crowd.

Libra is not a blockchain
Facebook succeeds in not mentioning the facts that blockchains are, by definition and terminology, a chain of blocks, linked together. Wiki has it right.

What is a cryptocurrency exactly: native currency of an open blockchain
Wiki states, that the decentralized control of cryptocurrencies works through distributed ledger technologies, typically a blockchain. Personally I would not have mentioned those ledgers as the blockchain is not so much a ledger as a journal (log roll of transaction entries). And apps are creating the ledger feeling for blockchains. But let’s look at the wording in the image.

The wording of Facebook is interesting. It speaks of using cryptocurrency due to the use of strong crypto. This leaves out the issue that cryptocurrencies may be native to blockchains (as in chains of blocks). And then Facebook moves on to cryptocurrencies being built on blockchain technologies.

Which is true of course, but if I use all the parts of an air plane to build a firmly grounded restaurant, this doesn’t mean that my restaurant is still an operational air plane. It is built on air plane technology, but the wording matters. Facebook puts up a smoke screen here to position itself in the blockchain community.

Libra is not a cryptocurrency
The funniest part of the Facebook FAQ was the mere statement that the Libra is a new cryptocurrency designed to have a stable and reliable value. Coming from a perspective where cryptocurrencies are inherent elements of open, truly decentralised permissionless blockchains, this is an interesting statement. It demonstrates that Facebook wishes to be a cryptocurrency but it isn’t.

The text above also shows that Facebook has its eyes on the stablecoins that are around. These stablecoin are, in my view, privately issued currencies, with the goal of a fiat peg. The stable-’coin’ is used a lot in the cryptoworld to facilitate fiat/crypto exchanges in times when the financial system is not online. The fact that this currency is used a lot in the cryptoworld, does however not make it a cryptocurrency in the terms of an inherent currency of an open permissionless blockchain.

Libra, what is it then, in regulatory terms?
My conclusion, after quite some pondering and tweeting is the following.

Libra is a privately issued and distributed digital and virtual ‘currency’, that is intended to function as a means of payment.It is not a true currency because its actual composition/counter value is a basket of fiat-currencies and financial instruments.It is not e-money as the Libra is not ‘monetary value’. The digital value qualifies bothas a financial instrument (a mini-participation in an open ended investment fund) anda payment instrument, to be used for payment and acquiring. Both payments and securities legislation apply, as well as the relevant competition and consumer protection rules.

The Libra association is the scheme owner and scheme operator of the Libra virtual currency. This currency/investment can only be bought directly by members of the Libra association. Other entities or customers must revert to second tier players, exchanges or peer-2-peer applications. Technical development of applications is encouraged and rules to secure the application by contract or licensing seem to be absent.

Due to the blending of scheme and operations, the Libra association cannot really be viewed as the beginning of a proper payment scheme. Functionality, pricing and membership rules make Libra and the Libra association an easy target for consumer/data protection and competition supervisors, bank supervisors and securities supervisors.

Smokescreen #3: Libra is not a charity exercise that seeks to operate a public good but a commercial enterprise
A huge amount of effort has gone into convincing the public this week that Libra is all about helping the rest of the world. Getting more inclusive finance. Making payments faster, easier and such. It is striking that these statements mirror the claims that originally come from the Bitcoin community or from the Fintech community.

Of course those claims strike a chord. People may well be fed up with their banks and the perception of banks with slow procedures and expensive fees for foreign payments are an easy target for PR-people who want to position their initiative in a friendly way to the public. Who doesn’t want to take on the banks and improve the world.

Commercially, the thinking of Facebook is most likely to be that it needs to counter the We-chat Pay dangers and all other Fintech movements that lead to easy in-app payments. Payments will increasingly be an afterthought and harvesting the data in those payments will allow for even higher ad revenues, as Facebook will see what works and what doesn’t. Interestingly Facebook did not increase the speed of its current developments; it chose to move up the value chain, towards setting up its own currency and hoping that it will work as a unit of account (and may stay in the system for long).

Of course, the move by Facebook is a big signal. But we must note that there are still also other players that could make the same move. Which would lead to some form of a duopoly (as with Mastercard and Visa) and the need to agree on interoperability or on open access to infrastructures of the big techs involved. I did not come across this notion a lot, so far.

The public good narrative: unbelievable coming from Facebook
What struck me most, coming from Facebook as a centralised company that is not interested in respecting democracies and laws written by those democracies, is the sketch of opportunities in the White Paper. And do have a look at the phrasing on public good.

Given that by now I hope to have convinced you that the design of the Libra association and its constituency is far below the usual standards to be expected from payment schemes, you can imagine that I was unable to reconcile these laudable beliefs with the actual proposition.

If you truly wish to create a new public good, a new worldwide currency, it is not impossible to deliver this with private sector entities. There is a whole range of public policy theories (delivery of universal services or service of general interest) that can help out here. But putting the richest, biggest enterprises of the world in one room, to distribute a world currency/investment proposition without proper safeguards or recognition and qualification of the activities of the issuing association is not the way I would go about.

Facebook cloaking its plans in cryptoterms,but why?
Let’s face it. This whole complex open source, cryptocurrency story that Facebook has published is not necessary. If Facebook Payments Inc or Facebook Ireland wishes to change its currency mechanism towards a different setup it could do so itself. Why is there a need to involve other stakeholders with a trendy and hip storyboard on decentralisation, blockchains, cryptocurrencies and such?

It can’t be a money issue. Facebook has sufficient resources to fund the whole exercise itself. And the quality of the exercise could then convince other commercial partners to join. So why the need to step out of its digital currency issuing role itself?

To me it is pretty clear that Facebook seeks to move up in our lives. Doing our financial business is not enough. It is all about entering our mind at a deep level. At the fiat currency level. We should think prices in terms of Libra, not in terms of fiat currency. And there is a good power reason for it. Because as long as Facebook uses digital fiat currencies it can be under the rule of the government that issues it. Now, by having a basket of currencies, Facebook can kick out currencies/countries if need be. State regulators and supervisors lose their power.

In addition, Facebook chooses to limit its own role and hide behind am Swiss association, to cover the fact that they don’t want to take the responsibilities that come with issuing a worldwide association. They are suckering/forcing partners into joining this programme, without alerting them to the obvious violations of competition rules that may arise. They leave out all mentions of safeguards and contractual arrangements that can aid in ensuring operational integrity for this worldwide currency. Rather they throw the technology in the public domain, knowing well that this means that it’s use cannot be fully controlled.

It is no surprise why politicians and regulators were keen to act. Their immediate response was that this was a further extension of an a-moral company that stops at nothing. As Maxine Walters outlined in the US, when asking Facebook to stop further development:

Reversing the statements to see what’s hidden in plain sight: ruthless selfishness
As a thought exercise I was wondering. If they claim that it is a blockchain and cryptocurrency, while essentially it isn’t, shouldn’t we also reverse the other statements to see what is truly happening here.

I leave the result for you to ponder and thank you for bearing with me in this ultralong blog.
Up next I expect blog 2 to be about EU-definitions and legislation.

As we, as Facebook are in it strictly for our own goals, we intend to hide our true intentions and motivations so we can fool the community and our partners in the ecosystem to go along.

We believe that many more people should buy financial and identity services from our company specifically, even when doing so will come at a higher cost than the available alternatives.

We don’t believe that people have an inherent right to control the fruit of their legal labour.

We believe that global, open, instant, and low-cost movement of money will create immense economic opportunity and more commerce for us in particular.

We believe that people will increasingly trust centralized forms of governance.

We believe that a global currency and financial infrastructure should not be designed and governed as a public good.

We believe that we don’t bear a final responsibility ourselves to help advance financial inclusion, support ethical actors, and continuously uphold the integrity of the ecosystem.

Originally published at http://moneyandpayments.simonl.org.

Dutch banking, payment and digital money / blockchain expert - http://www.simonl.org Also: tours & talks on financial history http://finhist.simonl.org