Face­book and Libra, that’s like the House of Medici on speed. The Medici fam­ily were mer­chants first. Dur­ing the Itali­an Renais­sance they became bankers, then princes. Then they pro­duced four popes of the Cath­ol­ic Church. It took them a few cen­tur­ies to do all that. But in announ­cing Libra, Face­book is claim­ing cyber prince­dom (cyber papacy even?) barely fif­teen years after its found­ing. No won­der the gov­ern­ments of today are stunned.

The moderator and panelists of The Dappers' event Introducing Libra: Facebook’s brainchild, on 16 July 2019.

This even­ing I had the pleas­ure of sit­ting on a dis­cus­sion pan­el with a few dis­tin­guished experts, at the invit­a­tion of The Dap­pers. The event was organ­ised by Domin­ika Nestar­cova of The Spartan Group. Our top­ic was ‘Intro­du­cing Libra: Facebook’s brainchild’.

Before the talk, Kelvin Koh of The Spartan Group gave a very insight­ful present­a­tion on Libra. Vic­tor Liew of Xfers was there for the in-depth tech­nic­al expert­ise. I tried to provide a his­tor­ic­al-polit­o­lo­gic­al clas­si­fic­a­tion (of sorts). Casper Johansen of The Spartan Group was our mod­er­at­or. And because I don’t have the time to come up with memory minutes of what each of us said, here are my pre­par­at­ory notes. Not all of the fol­low­ing was uttered ver­batim. You get the gist.

The Historical Precedent

His­tory doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Care for some rhymes?

To me, Face­book looks like the House of Medici on speed. The Medici fam­ily was rul­ing Florence through­out the Renais­sance (14th to 17th cen­tury). They were wool mer­chants first. So suc­cess­ful were they that they became bankers. Then their com­mer­cial power evolved into polit­ic­al power. They became princes. They pro­duced four popes of the Cath­ol­ic Church, until very recently the organ­isa­tion with the world’s biggest user base, so to speak.

Machiavelli ded­ic­ated his work, The Prince, to the Medi­cis. The Prince, this treat­ise on mod­ern polit­ic­al philo­sophy, which some say is a manu­al on how to attain and main­tain polit­ic­al power regard­less of right or mor­als. Machiavel­lian­ism.

The Rhyme

In announ­cing Libra, Face­book, this vastly suc­cess­ful data mer­chant, has declared it would go into bank­ing now. Not just mer­chant, retail or even invest­ment bank­ing, but cent­ral bank­ing. A cent­ral bank is the author­ity which issues and con­trols a cur­rency. Accord­ing to the Libra White­pa­per, the Libra Asso­ci­ation is to be the cent­ral bank for Libra.

Let’s not for­get how fast things are evolving today, in cyber­space in par­tic­u­lar. It took the Medici fam­ily a few cen­tur­ies to become princes and, at the height of its power, to con­trol the Cath­ol­ic Church. Face­book was only foun­ded fif­teen years ago. Dur­ing this time it has gained a lot more act­ive users than the Cath­ol­ic Church, or any polity, has ever had: 2.38 bil­lion. And now it announces what pretty much sounds like a sov­er­eign cur­rency.

This is a grab for power, a Medici move. It’s a claim for prince­dom, or even papacy. Not a prince­dom or even the Holy See in phys­ic­al space, but in vir­tu­al space. And eas­ily the biggest one, too. So big that it will have reper­cus­sions on phys­ic­al state power. 2.38 bil­lion poten­tial users of Libra.

The Reception

Unsur­pris­ingly, today’s gov­ern­ments are stunned. His­tor­ic­al gov­ern­ments used to know what it’s like to have a com­pet­it­or with the polit­ic­al weight of the Cath­ol­ic Church. But today’s gov­ern­ments don’t seem to remem­ber. For now, they feel there’s not much they can do, after Face­book has done no more than to announce Libra. The US Con­gress has writ­ten a soft request let­ter ask­ing Face­book not to pur­sue this pro­ject for now, please.

But why should Face­book com­ply?

The New Tune

If When Libra comes and if a sig­ni­fic­ant part of the user base uses Libra, then Face­book, through the Libra Asso­ci­ation, will be so much in con­trol, mon­et­ar­ily and oth­er­wise, this will be without pre­ced­ent. The Libra Asso­ci­ation – and every­one who con­trols it – will have immense power. To impose tar­iffs, raise taxes, influ­ence pri­cing. To determ­ine how much Libra there will be in the first place.

And all of Facebook’s prom­ises about neut­ral­ity and pri­vacy of Libra aside – Mark Zuck­er­berg isn’t known as someone who keeps his word – if only a small part of the 2.38 bil­lion user base uses Cal­ibra, Facebook’s des­ig­nated wal­let for Libra, then Face­book, in addi­tion to everything else, will know these users’ cred­it score and cus­tom­er beha­viour. What’s more, Face­book will also get the dir­ect means to access their wal­let. It will be able to give, or to take.

The con­cerns we have about Face­book today pale against this. This is no longer just a cor­por­a­tion, albeit a big one. This is next level. It’s a new kind of sov­er­eign.

The ques­tion arises, to which extent the users will agree to this? And what if they no longer do?