It’s Not the ‘Crypto’ That’s the Issue, It’s the Organisation Behind It

In all the hype that has surrounded its Libra currency, Facebook has been able to distract attention away from an important issue. Libra is being hyped as Facebook’s bitcoin but it’s really a proposal for a global payments system. And that system will be controlled by a small and exclusive club of private firms.

Since it was announced in June, politicians and regulators have attacked Libra, citing concerns about its being a cryptocurrency. Libra is not a cryptocurrency – at least, not as they have been put into practice so far, where a distributed, decentralised community participates in transaction verification via a competitive process.

Libra is essentially a prepaid digital token, backed one-to-one with a basket of reserve currencies. It is “minted” when people put up state-issued currencies to buy it.

What’s important here is not the technological innovation. Facebook is proposing, in Libra, a new form of organisation. We already have payment systems controlled by private companies – Visa, MasterCard, Venmo or PayPal, which provide the infrastructure or “rails” for transferring value – and Libra might turn into another such rail. But its promoters have greater ambitions for it.

Based on our research on the history and technology of payment infrastructures, we see similarities between Libra and Visa. But it’s the differences with the Visa network that raise the biggest warning flags.

Learning from Visa

Libra will be controlled and maintained by the Libra Association, a membership-based group. Libra’s developers have voiced a commitment to letting anyone become a member of the association, including users like you and me. The Libra white paper trumpets…

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