Libra coin backlash: What 'founding members' besides Facebook say

Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. speaks to a colleague as David Marcus, CEO of Facebook's Calibra digital wallet service, testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Facebook's proposed cryptocurrency on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. speaks to a colleague as David Marcus, CEO of Facebook's Calibra digital wallet service, testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, July 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Since Facebook’s June 18 simultaneous announcements of cryptocurrency Libra and digital wallet app Calibra, both planned for 2020 launch, Facebook has been slammed with skepticism and legal scrutiny from lawmakers.

David Marcus, the former head of Facebook Messenger who is now running Calibra, faced two days of grilling by members of Congress and the Senate.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) called for Facebook (FB) to halt its plans for Libra. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) echoed the same. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) went so far as to say that Libra could be worse than 9/11 by financing “the next horrific terrorist attack against Americans.”

But Facebook is not the only company behind Libra.

Although politicians and business press are widely framing Libra as Facebook’s cryptocurrency—and that’s fair, since Facebook executives have led its development—the Libra Association has 28 “founding members,” including big consumer names like MasterCard, Visa, Spotify, Uber, and Lyft.

So: What do those companies say now, after two weeks of public heat on Libra?

Yahoo Finance reached out to every Libra Association founding member to ask whether their thinking about Libra, or their status as founding members, has changed. Most declined to comment. Some referred us to the public statements they already posted.

Only four founding members reiterated their commitment to Libra, mostly under the theme of financial inclusion.

That makes sense: financial inclusion, and serving the underbanked and unbanked population, is the angle Facebook has emphasized in its framing of Libra. The Libra white paper notes that “1.7 billion adults globally remain outside of the financial system with no access to a traditional bank, even though one billion have a mobile phone and nearly half a billion have internet access.” In keeping with the emphasis on financial inclusion, it’s no surprise that the most responsive founding members in our effort were nonprofits.

Mercy Corps, for example, calls all the legal scrutiny “expected and welcome.” And while PayPal did not respond to a request for comment for this story, Julian King, VP of PayPal’s remittance business Xoom, told Yahoo Finance UK this week that offering financial services to the underbanked and unbanked is a “red hot” business opportunity. “It’s about darn time that the underserved found themselves the focus of innovation around the world,” King says.

No binding agreements

Facebook said at the time of Libra’s launch announcement that all of the founding members have committed to invest $10 million in Libra. But as the New York Times has reported, none have signed binding agreements—and thus could still drop out if they decide that being linked to Libra is toxic. (The New York Times also reported that MasterCard was one of the last to commit to the Libra Association—much has been made about Visa and MasterCard being on board.)

Indeed, sources at two of the founding member companies, speaking not for attribution, tell Yahoo Finance that they are monitoring the scrutiny in D.C. closely, and they confirmed that their companies have not signed binding agreements.

Libra Association's "founding members." (via Libra Association)
Libra Association's "founding members." (via Libra Association)

Women’s World Banking: Tom Jones, COO of the nonprofit micro-lender, tells Yahoo Finance, “The hearings in D.C. reaffirmed our commitment to be part of the Libra Association and use our position to explore new ways to reach financially excluded women.”

Jones praised David Marcus’s testimony, which he says “showed his desire and commitment to resolve regulatory issues prior to launch. Although questions geared toward Facebook were understandable, Congress also demonstrated a significant concern about not wanting to stifle innovation or letting the U.S. fall behind. Though the focus during the hearings was on the U.S. marketplace, for Women’s World Banking our commitment is to the nearly 1 billion women financially excluded and the hundreds of millions more that are underserved in the emerging markets. We continue to see Libra and the Association as an opportunity to complement the other work we are doing to achieve financial inclusion for women around the world.”

Kiva: A spokesperson for the micro-funding platform tells Yahoo Finance, “We continue to believe in the potential of this technology to advance financial inclusion.”

Kiva also directed Yahoo Finance to its own blog post that said being part of Libra Association is “very complementary to our own existing initiatives to leverage technology for broad financial inclusion,” such as Kiva Protocol, which uses blockchain to help set up a digital identity for the unbanked, and is being tested in Sierra Leone and aiming to launch in 2020.

Vodafone: Stefano Parisse, director of consumer products and services at the British telecom, tells Yahoo Finance, “We strongly believe in financial inclusion and are excited to be part of Libra. In digital societies people should be able to access financial services, regardless of where they live or how much they have. As a founding member of the Libra Network, Vodafone will extend its commitment to digital and financial inclusion, by supporting the creation of a new global currency and encouraging a wide range of innovative financial services to be developed through its open-source platform. This has the potential to be truly transformative and will benefit those who have never used, or are struggling to access, financial services around the world.”

As for the D.C. hearings specifically, a spokesperson for Vodafone adds, “We recognize that blockchain is an emerging technology and that policymakers must carefully consider how its applications fit into their financial system policies.”

Mercy Corps: A spokesperson for the humanitarian aid nonprofit tells Yahoo Finance, “The scrutiny we've seen is both expected and welcome. This is a significant new initiative that requires critical questions and broad input from regulators and lawmakers to get right. We are particularly pleased that much of the conversation has touched on the deep challenges that prevent poor, marginalized and unbanked people from effectively participating in the global economy today. We hope to see more focus on how the current system is failing the needs of so many and a continued focus on how Libra can and must work to create a system that better serves the needs of the poor, marginalized and unbanked.”

Coinbase: The cryptocurrency bank declined to comment, but directed us to a series of tweets from Coinbase chief legal officer Brian Brooks, who tweeted about the hearings in D.C. but did not mention Libra by name.

Brooks tweeted: “The recent discussions in Washington highlight an important point: crypto companies that interact with the traditional financial system should be held to the same high standards as other financial institutions, with the goal of protecting customers and curbing illegal activity... The United States can retain its leadership role in the global financial system, but only if it nurtures the development of the technologies that will underpin its future.”

Coinbase’s involvement in Libra has led many to theorize that Coinbase will add Libra to its list of cryptocurrencies available to buy and sell on its site; otherwise, why join the consortium?

Spotify: The Sweden-based music streaming site declined to comment but directed us to its blog post from the day of the Libra announcement.

Spotify wrote, “We’ve worked to create a platform where fans can directly access the audio they want—at any time, anywhere, and at the right price—while also offering economic viability for creators. This fundamental focus is why we believe in joining the Libra Association... Libra offers massive opportunity for simple, convenient, and safe payment over the internet (particularly for the 1.7 billion adults worldwide without access to mobile money, a bank account, or a payment card).”

Of the other founding members, Visa, Andreessen Horowitz, Anchorage, and Breakthrough Initiatives declined to comment for this story, while the rest did not respond to a request for comment.

The silence from most founding members is an obvious sign of caution. It’s also a reminder that although Facebook has tried to frame Libra as not just a Facebook effort, Facebook has had to go it alone so far in facing elected officials.

Dante Disparte, head of policy for the Libra Association, told Yahoo Finance in June that the consortium will amass 100 founding members before Libra launches. If negativity in Washington continues, that may not be so easy.

Yahoo Finance’s Donovan Russo assisted with this story.

Daniel Roberts covers bitcoin and blockchain at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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