It wasn’t so long ago that we greeted new technology with unbridled excitement: products like Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Echo were rightly hailed as world-changing inventions. Today, amidst the so-called tech-lash, we’re more likely to regard new tech—no matter how promising—with scorn and suspicion. Project Libra is a case in point.
Facebook announced Libra—a stable digital currency backed by a federation of companies—in June, and right away regulators set about to kill it. Meanwhile, many in the tech and crypto community rained contempt on the project and rooted for its demise. All of this has taken a toll: this week, a company offered a way to speculate on whether Libra, which was supposed to launch early in 2020, would arrive by the end of that year. The opening odds of it arriving by then are only 30%.
Brad Garlinghouse, the CEO of Ripple and an early fan of Libra, is even more pessimistic. He recently told Fortune he doesn’t see Facebook’s coin arriving before 2023 at best. Meanwhile, some of Libra’s founding partners are heading for the exits. PayPal officially quit last week, while Visa and Mastercard are signaling they want to bolt—a giant blow to Facebook’s aspirations to create a coalition of diverse members to manage the digital currency.
This is a shame. Libra is a truly big idea along the lines of what Apple produced under its late CEO Steve Jobs. It promises a cheap and easy payment method that could transform cross-border commerce, and help billions of people who lack access to banking or a stable currency to store their money. Yet many want to ensure it never sees the light of day.
Some of the concerns over Libra are valid. Facebook, the ringleader of Project Libra, has a horrendous track record when it comes to data privacy, and regulators are rightfully concerned about the company acquiring influence over the global financial system. One cryptocurrency lawyer even went so far as to suggest Facebook was undertaking a hostile act against the people of the U.S.—one akin to raising a private army.
Much of the criticism, though, feels in bad faith or overblown. In the case of France and Germany, which are preparing laws to ban Libra outright, the reaction feels like another example of those countries’ knee-jerk impulse to beat up on American companies whose innovation Europe cannot match.
The criticism from inside tech and crypto circles also feels unfair. Tech bible Wired, for instance, recently took the Libra Association—a Swiss-based foundation with independent oversight of the project—to task because many members have loose ties to Facebook. Is this so surprising or so wrong? There will inevitably be overlap in any group of companies trying to get a new technology off the ground. Meanwhile, crypto cliques are panning Libra because its blockchain is to be maintained by a closed group of companies instead of the open Internet. But it’s hard to see how Facebook could have arranged things any other way: a certain degree of centralization is necessary to move things along—just look at how so many open blockchain projects have been plagued by infighting and lack of direction.
Most importantly, the Libra critics are training their fire at a project that doesn’t even exist yet. It would make much more sense to let Libra take shape in the real world—or at least a small corner of it—and then decide if it merits additional oversight or should be shut down. Project Libra is an effort to implement one of the most important technologies of our age. Let’s at least give it a chance.
This is especially critical given that China and other authoritarian regimes are barreling forward with cryptocurrency plans of their own. Blockchain and Internet-based money are going to shape the next decade of finance—whether regulators like it or not—and the interests of the U.S. are best served if the world adopts a cryptocurrency developed by an American company. Thanks for reading, more news below.
Jeff John Roberts | @jeffjohnroberts | Jeff.firstname.lastname@example.org
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BALANCING THE LEDGER
As noted above, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse dropped by Fortune's studio to discuss Libra and much more—including the adoption of XRP, and how the company is navigating a volatile regulatory environment. Read a recap and watch the video here.
FOMO NO MO'
"That China is in the lead here should give you pause. Most banking and financial systems are an uneasy blend of centralized and decentralized elements, with the balance changing as technologies evolve. If countries institute central bank digital currencies, it will in effect be an end run around the private sector. Too much commercial activity will be subject to centralized regulatory control."
Bloomberg Opinion's Tyler Cowen, in an insightful exploration of the many potential downsides of a national digital currency. Another serious worry: digitizing the dollar could further depress lending to small and mid-size businesses by shrinking banks' balance sheets.
This edition of The Ledger was curated by David Z. Morris. Find past editions here, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters here. Question, suggestion, or feedback? Drop us a line.
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