Cryptocurrency News Today: Lowlights from Zuckerberg’s Libra testimony in Congress
“I don’t control Libra” was the central theme of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony today in Congress. The House of Representatives unleashed critiques of his approach to Cryptocurrency, privacy, encryption and running a giant corporation during six hours of hearings. Zuckerberg tried to assuage their fears while stoking concerns that if Facebook doesn’t build Libra, the world will end up using China’s version. Yet Facebook won’t stop shaking up society, with Zuckerberg saying its News tab feature will be announced this week.
During the hearing before the House Financial Services Committee that you can watch here, Zuckerberg recommitted to only releasing Libra with full U.S. regulatory approval. But given the tone of the questioning and Zuckerberg’s lack of fresh answers since Facebook’s David Marcus testified about Libra in July, Libra now looks even less likely to launch in 2020.
The hearing started tensely, with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) declaring that “Perhaps you believe that you’re above the law, and it appears that you are aggressively increasing the size of your company, and are willing to step over anyone, including your competitors, women, people of color, you own users, and even our democracy to get what you want . . . In fact, you have opened up a serious discussion about whether Facebook should be broken up.“
However, some members of Congress used their time to advocate for American dominance instead of heavy regulation. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) said “the question is, are we going to spend our time trying to devise ways for government planners to centralize and control as to who, when and how innovators can innovate.” Many Republicans complimented Zuckerberg on his business acumen, though none showed outright support for Libra.
With few highlights or positive moments coming from the hearing, here are the major takeaways followed by a chronicle of the top exchanges between Zuckerberg and Congress:
- Zuckerberg claims China will soon have its own version, so regulators shouldn’t block Libra
- He’s open to regulators requiring Libra to be majority-backed by the U.S. dollar
- Zuckerberg would leave inheritance to his children in Libra since it’s backed one-to-one with real currency
- He wouldn’t commit to blocking anonymous wallets but he’s open to baking more anti-money laundering into Libra’s network
- Zuckerberg plans to expand verifying users via government ID to battle abuse of Facebook
- He said Libra partners left because “it’s a risky project and there’s been a lot of scrutiny”
- Zuckerberg confirmed the Libra Association has abandoned or modified its plan to deal themselves dividends on interest from the Libra reserve
- Facebook will pull out of Libra if it does something Facebook can’t allow or that it’s prohibited from by regulators
- Zuckerberg didn’t discuss Facebook’s policy allowing misinformation in political ads with President Trump during their meeting
- He says Facebook is developing anti-deepfakes technology and a policy about takedowns
- He repeated his call for more government regulation instead of Facebook making its own rules
- Facebook will comply with subpoenas for info on discrimination in housing ads
- Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to trying out the role of Facebook content moderator
- Facebook plans to announce its upcoming News tab this week
- Congress’ questions were smarter than a year ago, but still pried little new information on Libra out of Zuckerberg
- Zuckerberg repeatedly relied on the Libra Association’s independence from Facebook to avoid substantial answers
On Libra versus China
Zuckerberg tried to leverage nationalist sentiment to deflect scrutiny. “As soon as we put forward the white paper around the Libra project, China immediately announced a public private partnership, working with companies . . . to extend the work that they’ve already done with AliPay into a digital Renminbi as part of the Belt and Road Initiative that they have, and they’re planning on launching that in the next few months.” He later said that for Libra, “Chinese companies would be the primary competitors.”
Facebook’s executives have repeatedly leaned on this “let us, or China will” argument we chronicle here.
What if the Libra Association chooses to add the Chinese currency to the basket used to back Libra and reduces the U.S. dollar’s fraction of the basket? “I think it would be completely reasonable for our regulators to try to [implement] a restriction that says that it has to be primarily U.S. dollars,” Zuckerberg responded in one of his most substantial answers of the day. Zuckerberg was receptive to feedback that the Libra Association should keep its white paper updated.
As for why Libra isn’t just backed 100% with the U.S. dollar, Zuckerberg explained that “I think from a U.S. regulatory perspective, it would probably be significantly simpler. But because we’re trying to build something that can also be a global payment system that works in other places, it may be less welcome in other places if it’s only 100% based on the dollar.” Still, Zuckerberg said he would leave his children their inheritance in Libra because it’s backed one-to-one by the Libra reserve.
On Libra and regulation
Zuckerberg wouldn’t commit to blocking anonymous Libra wallets that could facilitate money laundering, only saying Facebook’s own Calibra wallet would have strong identity checks. He did say Libra was exploring whether it could encode “know your customer” protections at the network level instead of relying on developers to build this into their wallets.
On whether Facebook will increasingly seek to verify users’ identities through government ID, Zuckerberg was enthusiastic. “This is an area where I think we are going to do a lot more in the years to come. We started with political ads . . . over the coming years for anything that people are doing that is sensitive, we’re likely going to increasingly require verification either by government ID or other things so we can have a clear sense of people’s authentic identity.”
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) mentioned this could be a competitive advantage, implying Facebook’s size and resources might allow it to embark on a verification initiative other companies couldn’t.
Facebook has assured regulators that Calibra’s data would be kept separate from the social network. But Facebook said the same when it acquired WhatsApp, then reneged and integrated its data. This time around, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez declared that “we’re going to need to make sure that . . . you learned that you should not lie.”
When pushed on why Libra Association members like Visa, Stripe and eBay left the organization, Zuckerberg admitted, “I think because it’s a risky project and there’s been a lot of scrutiny.” Zuckerberg struck back at finance incumbents, saying “I think that the U.S. financial industry . . . is just frankly behind where it needs to be to innovate and continue American financial leadership going forward.”
In an awkward moment, Zuckerberg could not answer which Libra members were run by women, minorities or LGBTQ+ people. “Is it true that the overwhelming majority of persons associated with this endeavor are white men?,” Rep. Al Green (D-TX) asked. “Congressman, I don’t know off the top of my head,” Zuckerberg responded.
Zuckerberg was criticized for trying to profit and potentially helping money laundering while claiming Libra is designed to help the unbanked. Zuckerberg said the Libra Association “hadn’t nailed down policies” about whether anonymous payments are allowed.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) said “for the richest man in the world to come here and hide behind the poorest people in the world, and say that’s who you’re really trying to help. You’re trying to help those for whom the dollar is not a good currency — drug dealers, terrorists.” Some members of Congress like Sherman chose to use their entire time monologuing instead of actually asking questions.
Zuckerberg got a chance to clear up a major snafu from Marcus’ testimony, where he said the Libra Association was in contact with the Swiss data regulator, which CNBC reported hadn’t heard from Libra. Zuckerberg explained today that the Libra Association had been in contact with the primary Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority instead. He says Facebook plans to earn money from Libra on ads from small businesses if cheap transactions lead to more e-commerce.
In one revealing exchange, Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) asked if the Libra Association still planned to offer profit incentives by offering dividends based on interest earned on currency in the Libra reserve after expenses are paid. Zuckerberg said the idea had either been “modified or abandoned.”
Claiming Facebook isn’t Libra
Throughout the testimony, Zuckerberg tried to distance himself and Facebook from the Libra Association’s decision making process. “We might be required to pull out if the Association independently decides to move forward on something that we’re not comfortable with,” Zuckerberg said. That means if Facebook can’t launch Libra, it could still theoretically launch without the social network, though it does most of the engineering heavy-lifting.
The strategy was crystallized by Zucke