Facebook’s dream of a global cryptocurrency raises political stakes

Facebook introduced its vision for a global cryptocurrency called Libra two months ago, and since then, regulators have piled criticism onto the project. They may have their own reasons.

Global privacy regulators, central bankers and finance ministers have voiced concerns with the proposed Libra cryptocurrency because it could, at least in theory, drastically change or even undermine their jobs. As a result, investors, crypto enthusiasts and regulators themselves say Libra has raised the stakes for financial authorities, forcing them to take a more serious look at digital currencies.

“Ten years ago, regulators didn’t care about bitcoin,” said Ido Sadeh Man, an Israeli entrepreneur who is launching a digital coin called Saga, in an interview with CNBC’s Beyond the Valley. “It was a niche. They were all sure that it was going to go away and vanish on its own. That’s not the case anymore.”

Facebook launched Libra in collaboration with 27 other companies in June. The digital currency would be overseen by an independent nonprofit based in Switzerland called the Libra Association, though many details about how that organization would operate remain unclear. The goal of the project, Facebook says, is to provide a fast, low-cost way for people around the world to transfer money, especially those who don’t have access to traditional banking services.

Instant reaction

In the past, U.S. and international regulators were measured in their response toward cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. With Libra, they have been quick to raise concerns.

The same day Facebook debuted the Libra project, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said it would be “subject to the highest standards of regulation.” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell followed suit a few weeks later, listing concerns including privacy, money laundering, consumer protection and financial stability. Since then, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra have raised similar worries.

The ECB declined to comment further but pointed CNBC to a letter signed by Draghi and published July 25, saying “stablecoin initiatives must ensure public trust by meeting the highest regulatory standards and be subject to prudent supervision and oversight.” The FTC declined to comment while the Bank of England, Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.