Libra’s Legal Challenges

By Misha Guttentag and JP Schnapper-Casteras

Today’s announcement of Facebook’s much-anticipated cryptocurrency, Libra, has already spurred a flurry of commentary about technology and ramifications for the fintech space. But as Facebook publicly unveils its plans for Libra, a new question emerges: is Facebook prepared for the legal challenges to come?

On the face of things, Facebook’s announcement hews close to legal compliance. Their subsidiary is already registered with FinCEN, and their announcement carefully avoids any impression that purchasing Libra will earn users a profit. So, legally speaking, nothing to see here — right? Nope, not so fast. Here are some big, unanswered legal questions on Facebook’s horizon:

First, who will regulate this potentially ground-breaking new “global currency”? In today’s current legal environment, the short answer is just about everyone. In the U.S. alone, the Treasury, SEC, CFTC, IRS and state financial regulators are all already involved in cryptocurrency regulation. Facebook already earned the ire of antitrust groups through its data collection alone; its foray into central banking could be the kicker that finally sets off the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division to begin more formally exploring the possibility of breaking Facebook up. On the Hill, representatives across the political spectrum have been asking hard questions about Facebook and its currency plans, including a recent bipartisan inquiry from the Senate. The two top lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee have urged Facebook to testify before Congress about its plans for Libra; Maxine Waters, the ranking Democrat, even called for a moratorium on further Libra development. Other legal questions linger, including about tax implications of Libra-denominated spending, and Facebook’s commitment to enforcing the U.S.’s strict Anti-Money Laundering requirements placed on financial institutions like banks.

Globally, Libra faces an international regulatory landscape that is even more complex. Within hours of Facebook’s announcement, France’s Finance Minister, Bruno La Maire, proclaimed that Libra becoming a sovereign currency should be “out of the question,” that it “can’t and must not happen,” and that it only “increases our determination to regulate the Internet giants.” Jurisdictionally, Facebook headquartered the Libra Association in Geneva, but that hardly settles the question of which countries will try to exert control. In Asia, India’s legislature is considering a bill that would criminalize the purchase and sale of cryptocurrencies, presumably including Libra. China has repeatedly vacillated on digital currencies, banning and unbanning their production and sale. Perhaps Facebook has a grand strategy to employ a phalanx of local counsel to persuade regulators overseas or challenge clampdowns in court where needed. But it is hard to see smooth seas ahead.

Beyond finessing global regulations, Libra will have to contend with United States securities laws, especially surrounding its plans to “stabilize” its currency value. Facebook’s announcement suggests the company plans to “back” Libra with a mix of financial assets in order to stabilize its price. The legal status of so-called “stablecoins” — designed to retain a steady value, as compared to a currency like bitcoin or the Japanese Yen, whose purchasing power appreciates and depreciates — is unclear. The regulatory uncertainty surrounding “stablecoins” played a major part in the dissolution of one of the biggest projects, Basis, which shuttered and refunded approximately $100 million to investors.

More fundamentally, if Facebook succeeds in creating a currency that maintains value — as opposed to the 2% annual decline in purchasing power (inflation target) favored by the world’s central banks, Libra could even represent a source of competition for national currencies. As the Nobel-Prize winning mathematician John Nash mused, monetary policies “are typically of great importance to citizens who have alternative options for where to place their savings.” If Facebook can beat 2% inflation, then some currencies could struggle to compete.

Libra.org, “Vision” (June 2019)

Thus, questions remain: will central bankers (and other political leaders) view Libra as a threat to their monetary sovereignty? Will regulators see stablecoins as a benign mechanism to avoid speculative investment or crashes? Will they view it as a basket of commodities and securities like an ETF? Or will they ask whether stablecoins could constitute a form of market manipulation whereby Libra’s members, who each paid $10 million to participate in the network, intervene to prop up (or deflate) the price whenever they so choose?

Finally, the elephant in the room is not Libra, but Facebook itself. Libra comes out in a difficult and sensitive moment for Facebook, both in terms of politics and popular backlash.  More broadly, there is serious skepticism from progressives and conservatives alike about the expanding size and role of “Big Technology.”  At the consumer level, there appears to be a groundswell of concern about how companies like Facebook are monetizing and handling years’ worth of private data. Whether Facebook can earn back user trust, at the same time it launches a currency that will invariably require some degree of trust, remains to be seen. Indeed, the “In God We Trust” phrase printed on the U.S. Dollar is more than a motto — nearly one century after the Federal Reserve ended citizens’ abilities to redeem dollars for gold, the phrase symbolizes how trust in the currency’s value is crucial to the money’s acceptance and success. A currency without trust backing its value can quickly become worth no more than the paper (or a cotton-linen blend) on which it is printed.  

The big risk for the world’s regulators is not that Libra fails, but that it succeeds. Or, perhaps even more consequential, that Libra succeeds in familiarizing a broad swath of users to digital currencies, who ultimately opt to use an even more permissionless global currency like bitcoin. In the future, regulators considering a clampdown on the cryptocurrency phenomena may find themselves also facing a bitcoin network with no affinity for authority — and longing for simpler or centralized policy landscape that has since been overtaken by events. For now the bottom line is this: between today’s announcement and Libra’s launch in 2020, Facebook’s legal team — and perhaps monetary and financial regulators too — have plenty of work to do.

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