SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook already rules daily communication for more than two billion people around the world. Now it wants its own currency, too.
The social network unveiled an ambitious plan Tuesday to create a new digital currency similar to Bitcoin for global use, one that could drive more e-commerce on its services and boost ads on its platforms.
But the effort, which Facebook is launching with partners including PayPal, Uber, Spotify, Visa and Mastercard, could complicate matters for the beleaguered social network. Facebook is currently under federal investigation over its privacy practices, and along with other technology giants also faces a new antitrust probe in Congress.
“It’s a bold and strategic move that has clear risks as well as opportunities tied to it,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives. “This could raise further raise yellow flags as more regulators focus on Facebook.”
The digital currency, called Libra, is scheduled to launch sometime in the next six to 12 months. Facebook is taking the lead on building Libra and its underlying technology; its more than two dozen partners will help fund, build and govern the system. Facebook hopes to raise as much as $1 billion from existing and future partners to support the effort.
Cryptocurrencies Have Generally Failed to Catch On
Company officials emphasized Libra as a way of sending money across borders without incurring significant fees, such as those charged by Western Union and other international money-transfer services. Libra could also open up online commerce to huge numbers of people around the world who currently don’t have bank accounts or credit cards.
Facebook also could use its own currency to drive more people to make purchases from ads on its social media sites, said Gartner analyst Avivah Litan, who based her comments on press reports about Libra that preceded Facebook’s formal announcement. “This is about fostering more sales within an ad to get more business from advertisers to make ads more interesting on Facebook,” she said.
Backing by familiar corporations might also make Libra the first Bitcoin-like currency with mass appeal. Such “cryptocurrencies” have generally failed to catch on despite a devout following among curious investors and innovators. Bitcoin itself remains shrouded in secrecy and fraud concerns, not to mention wild value fluctuations, making it unappealing for the average shopper.
Facebook Won’t Run Libra Directly
To be sure, recent history reminds us that many big Facebook announcements never really take off. Two years ago, for instance, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised that “augmented reality,” in which phones and other devices project digital images into real-world surroundings, would be a major focus for the company. Such AR applications remain all but invisible today. Same goes for the online shopping chatbots that Zuckerberg unveiled a year earlier, saying they would revolutionize e-commerce in its Messenger app.
Facebook won’t run Libra directly; instead, the company and its partners are forming a nonprofit called the Libra Association, headquartered in Geneva, that will oversee the new currency and its use. The association will be regulated by Swiss financial authorities, Facebook said.
Calibra won’t require users to have a Facebook account to make a free wallet. And it will allow people to send Libra back and forth on two of Facebook’s core messaging apps — WhatsApp and Messenger. Instagram messages won’t be included, at least at first.