Why Is Facebook Getting Into Cryptocurrency?

The company says the Diem coin can help fix our payment system, but experts are unconvinced

5 min read

The background is purple and wavy. On the left is Facebooks icon logo. On the right is the icon for Diem.
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/Getty Images

UPDATE 8 Dec. 2023: Since this story originally published two years ago, cryptocurrencies have through the familiar assortment of market ups and market downs, but because of regulatory backlash in the E.U. and U.S. in particular, Facebook (now Meta) and their Diem coin has been abandoned. The following January, the company sold Diem to the La Jolla, Calif.-based Silvergate Capital Corporation for what the latter reported as $50 million in cash. “We have confidence in Silvergate’s ability to take Diem’s technology forward and transform the future of payments,” said Diem CEO at the time Stuart Levey. (Reuters then reported in March 2023 that Silvergate went into voluntary liquidation.)

All of which is not to say, of course, that private-issued currencies by some of the world’s biggest tech firms has exactly gone away as definitively as Diem has. Earlier this month Spectrum looked into the future potential of other forms of private-issued digital money. (Bezos Bucks, anyone?) Meanwhile, David Marcus—cited below as, at the time, head of Facebook Financial (F2)—has since moved on to greener pastures for a cryptocurrency startup called Lightspark. As he reflected in September on lessons learned from the Diem failure, “You don’t want a private company to become massive in controlling the unit of account and managing reserves at a single point of failure.” Translation: Money is the government’s game, and when private companies get their hands too dirty, governments don’t play along. Marcus says he’s learned better than to set up a private currency entity that tries to make, he says, “everyone happy, and it’ll be wonderful, and everyone will agree.” —IEEE Spectrum

Original article from 30 Sept. 2021 follows:

Facebook is on the cusp of launching an ambitious new cryptocurrency-based payment system that it says will boost financial inclusion and slash transaction fees. But experts have questioned whether the technology will really achieve those goals.

At the center of the company’s plan is a digital wallet called Novi designed to let people trade Diem—a “stablecoin” whose value is pegged to the US dollar. The project is essentially a re-branding of the Libra cryptocurrency and Calibra wallet, which the company unveiled in June 2019 but quickly put on the backburner following significant pushback from lawmakers and regulators.

The plan has undergone a major revamp, and the company now plans to launch by the end of the year, offering free person-to-person transfers both domestically and across borders. In a recent blog post, head of Facebook Financial (F2) David Marcus said the project is aimed at tackling systemic problems with today’s “broken payments infrastructure,” which leads to high transaction fees, slow cross-border payments, and millions of people around the world remaining unbanked.

“They’re pointing to a legitimate problem,” says Lee Reiners, executive director of the Global Financial Markets Center at Duke University. But it’s far from clear why they need a new cryptocurrency to solve them, he adds.

“Facebook takes great pains to point out that Diem is run by the Diem Association. … It deflects a lot of the criticism around concentration and data privacy concerns.”
—Lee Reiners, Duke University

The coin at the heart of the proposal is controlled by a consortium of companies called the Diem (formerly Libra) Association, of which Facebook is a member. The project has morphed significantly since 2019, with the association moving its main operations from Switzerland to the US and abandoning plans to peg the coin’s value to a basket of currencies, instead opting for what is essentially a digital dollar.

In a revamped whitepaper published last April, the association also dropped a commitment to eventually shift from a “permissioned” blockchain—where the association decides who can validate transactions—to the kind of “permissionless” system used by most cryptocurrencies, where anyone who plays by the rules built into the network can edit records. The move was explained as a response to regulators’ concerns about the challenge of ensuring all users were complying with financial regulations, which the Diem Association has committed to honoring.

Another consideration may have been that a permissioned network is able to handle far more transactions per second than the diffuse networks of permissionless systems, says Shin’ichiro Matsuo, research professor of computer science at Georgetown University. But the trade-off is that they sacrifice the main rationale for using a blockchain in the first place—namely its decentralized structure, which prevents any single point of failure in the payment system.

“They’re not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. I think they lost that benefit of the doubt a long time ago.”
—Lee Reiners

Blockchains, whether permissioned or not, can have other advantages over conventional payment technology, says Matsuo. Most significant is programmability, which makes it possible to create “smart contracts” and automate the provision of financial products and services. But Facebook’s suggestion that the technology will help significantly reduce the cost of transactions seems unlikely, he adds.

The reason it takes a lot of time and money to process payments is not down to the underlying payment technology, but the onerous security checks providers have to conduct to comply with laws aimed at prevent money laundering and other illicit activities. If Facebook is lowering transaction fees, that’s a business decision, not a feature of the technology, says Matsuo. “There’s no magic,” he adds.

For the same reason, the approach is unlikely to significantly boost financial inclusion, says economist and financial commentator Frances Coppola, because the company will have to implement the same identity checks that prevent the bulk of the world’s unbanked from opening conventional accounts.

The proposal seems focused on solving problems specific to the USA’s slow, expensive and surprisingly backwards payments system, says Coppola. In much of the rest of the world fast, cheap digital payments are the norm—and solutions like the UK’s Faster Payments Service or India’s Unified Payments Interface have solved many of the problems Diem targets without recourse to a blockchain. “You can do this without cryptocurrency,” Coppola says. “I don’t see any advantage to having a blockchain other than marketing.”

Reiners thinks the decision to rely on a blockchain is driven more by policy considerations than technical merit. By adopting a system that shares responsibility for the coin among the members of the Diem Association, Facebook is able to avoid the level of scrutiny it would receive if it set up its own currency. “Facebook takes great pains to point out that Diem is run by the Diem Association, it’s not their thing,” he says. “I think it deflects a lot of the criticism around concentration and data privacy concerns.”

But those concerns should remain, says Reiners. Facebook is clearly the driving force behind the project and will be the first to release a Diem-enabled wallet, he says. The company has already made clear its intention to integrate Novi with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which could quickly give it access to millions if not billions of users.

And their promise not to leverage transaction fees begs the question what benefit the company sees in the project, says Reiners. “They’re not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts,” he says. “I think they lost that benefit of the doubt a long time ago.”

His best guess is that the project is aimed at augmenting the company’s existing business model of collecting data on its users and selling it to advertisers. “You can imagine how rich a source of data payments information is,” says Reiners. “If they can combine what we’re buying with all the other data they have on us, then they kind of know us better than we know ourselves.”

Facebook and the Diem Association both declined interview requests.

The Conversation (7)
ChengGuang Ou
ChengGuang Ou08 Oct, 2021

Facebook's financial plan is really an IQ fee. As the article said, it can improve the security of online payment and cross platform payment, but it is impossible to reduce the cost of economic transactions. Economy is the continuation of politics. Moreover, this is the world of capital. If a technology can reduce the cost of transactions, it has already been applied between countries, rather than a fantasy technology.

Ashok Deobhakta
Ashok Deobhakta10 Jan, 2022


WANG QISHENG08 Oct, 2021

Virtual currency is still too impractical for us. Facebook's cryptocurrency is a bold attempt. Based on their influence on the Internet industry, I think Diem will create a new field in the field of cryptocurrency and will have a great impact on our lives in the future. In the future, Diem may really change the current payment environment, and the so-called "repair payment system" may really become a reality.