Facebook’s impending move to offer a digital currency will create a new regulatory minefield for a company whose privacy practices have already provoked attacks from lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe.
The closely guarded yet much-discussed cryptocurrency initiative, code-named “Project Libra,” could become a major e-commerce tool for Facebook users across the social network’s suite of services, from Instagram to messaging. But as with other cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, the new Facebook coin could become a tool for money launderers and terrorist financiers, a risk that has drawn the attention of lawmakers and regulators.
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The project is expected to be unveiled on Tuesday, where more details will be released.
A Facebook equivalent of Bitcoin could allow users to buy products from popular Instagram influencers more quickly and easily than with cash — while remaining within the company’s social media domain. And importantly for Facebook shareholders, the company could make money off a fee for every processed transaction.
“Facebook could use cryptocurrency as a payment mechanism to remove friction across its various services,” analysts at Merrill Lynch said in a June 14 report. “We see the launch as an important initiative for the company as it builds out a more private messaging ecosystem with e-commerce capabilities.”
The global coin is initially expected to be available in about 12 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. Using the digital asset would not require a bank account, and its value would be tied to a group of established, state-backed currencies such as the dollar and the pound sterling, according to media reports. The operation would be based in Switzerland.
But with this big step into the tightly regulated world of finance, the company will expose itself to a type of regulatory intrusion that is not common in its traditional realm of online media. Chief among the concerns, according to experts, are the possibilities that Facebook’s global coin could be exposed to money laundering using the company’s main website and its sister platforms WhatsApp and Instagram.
“Facebook coin will do for money laundering what Facebook did for fake news — likely lead to an explosion in terrorist financing,” said Charlie Delingpole, CEO of Comply Advantage, an anti-money laundering consultancy.
Bank of England Gov. Mark Carney met Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to discuss these plans in April, according to the Guardian.
The following month, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the top two members of the Senate Banking Committee, wrote to Zuckerberg to ask about how Facebook’s cryptocurrency system would work.
“What outreach has there been to financial regulators to ensure it meets all legal and regulatory requirements?” the senators asked in their May 9 letter. A spokeswoman for Crapo said the senator has not received a response from Facebook.
The Trump administration has viewed digital currencies warily.
Last month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his department is monitoring cryptocurrencies in its effort to shut off funds for illicit activities.
Earlier this year, another Treasury official said cryptocurrencies are tools — like cocaine and Rolls Royces — that criminals increasingly use to store value and are a “tremendously high” concern for U.S. national security and sanctions enforcement.
A congressional hearing in the House or Senate to demand answers from Facebook executives about how its cryptocurrency product would work is likely in the months ahead, said lawyers involved in the digital assets sector who declined to be named to speak freely about the company.
A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment.
In the European Union, which already has stringent regulations for payments companies, a new package of rules is taking effect next year, just as Facebook will need to build momentum for its coin product.
The Fifth European Anti-Money Laundering Directive, or AMLD5, kicks in on Jan. 10, bringing in stricter requirements on identifying the beneficiaries of transactions and collecting and sharing information, including for operators of digital assets and prepaid cards.
Fines for alleged AML misconduct have run into the tens of billions of dollars over the years for banks around the world.
“Certain regulators, some of whom have been fundamentally opposed to cryptocurrency and Bitcoin since Day One, will absolutely view [Facebook’s] global coin as a tool that could potentially be used for money laundering,” said Jay Zhou, chief marketing officer of Loopring, an open-source protocol for building decentralized exchanges. “It will be up to Facebook to prove them wrong.”
With a cryptocurrency product, Facebook will need to comply with the same money transmission laws that apply to banks and companies such as Western Union.
As part of its regulatory checklist, Facebook is likely to need a “BitLicense” from New York state, said Sarah Brennan, a partner at law firm Lippes Mathias in Buffalo, N.Y.
BitLicenses, awarded by the state Department of Financial Services, have been handed out to conventional cryptocurrency firms such as Circle Internet Financial and the Winklevoss twins’ Gemini Trust Co. But any business that wants to do digital currency transmissions is likely to need New York’s permission.
Facebook has talked with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission about its proposed digital currency, the Financial Times reported earlier this month. The company will also need to speak with the SEC if it wants its coin to be traded by people separately from the company’s platforms. The SEC would seek to regulate Facebook’s coin as a security if the product is designed to be transferred to third-party digital wallets, Brennan said.
An SEC spokesperson declined to comment.
Facebook will want its coin to be available widely, Brennan said. “It is a much more compelling product from a business perspective,” she said. “It looks like they are certainly planning that. You get nowhere if you are offering that as salary to your employees and they can’t redeem that for anything outside Facebook.”