In its effort to bring the Libra cryptocurrency to life, perhaps the biggest hurdle for Facebook is a lack of trust and opposition from regulators around the world, who are concerned about Libra's potential implications for privacy and financial stability and Facebook's role in managing it.
Facebook's (FB) answer to those criticisms is the Libra Association, a group the company says is an independent, Switzerland-based organization that will govern the digital currency. The organization is a coalition of companies and nonprofits and is designed as a sort of buffer between Facebook and the project it developed. Facebook says it will ensure neither it nor any other company has an outsized influence over the new currency. The group has 28 "founding member" organizations but plans to grow to 100.
But many of those founding members have close personal, professional and financial ties to Facebook and one another, calling Facebook's characterization of the Association into question. Those links reach the group's top leadership. Experts say the connections raise questions about Facebook's ongoing influence over the project and whose values will be applied to Libra.
"When the white paper said Facebook will be just one of 100 members, you can see with your own eyes that's not quite true," said Katharina Pistor, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on corporate governance and finance.
This is important because of what Libra aims to be and the responsibilities the Association would have, duties previously held mostly by governments and central banks.
Libra is a cryptocurrency built on open-source blockchain technology that Facebook developed. It's different from most other cryptocurrencies because it's designed to be used for transactions, not just investments. With Libra, people could send money to friends or pay for things online like they send an email -— freely (or at least, cheaply) and easily through digital wallet apps, the first of which will be offered by a Facebook subsidiary. Facebook says Libra could improve access to financial services around the world.
Many experts and lawmakers believe Facebook's billions of users will make Libra the most widely used cryptocurrency and could make it big enough to rival government-backed currencies like the dollar, potentially threatening the stability of traditional financial systems. The Libra Association would be responsible for overseeing that currency: ensuring it retains value, determining how to work with regulators and how users' privacy will be protected.
That's why regulators are particularly worried about Facebook wielding significant influence over the Libra Association. Some don't trust the social media company to steward such an ambitious project because of its history of privacy violations and having its platform co-opted by foreign trolls most notoriously aiming to interfere in US elections. Many US lawmakers repeated such concerns at two hearings on the project before the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees in July.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg "and his executives have proven over and over that they don't understand governing or accountability," said Sherrod Brown, a Democratic Senator from Ohio, during one of the July hearings. The fight over Libra comes as Facebook and other big tech companies are also facing bipartisan probes over antitrust concerns.
The Association was meant to help engender trust in the project.
"The reason we designed Libra in such a way that Facebook will only be one among 100 different members of the Libra Association and will have no special privilege means that you will not have to trust Facebook," Facebook's David Marcus told lawmakers in July.
Libra is expected to launch next year, although Marcus has promised to wait until the currency receives regulatory approval. Technically the Libra Association does not need American regulators' approval to launch outside the US because it is based in Switzerland, but it would have a hard time gaining traction without US users. While the Association is still in its early days, the connections between the group's founding member companies may make it harder to gain lawmakers' trust.