On Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, the Libra. What will its consequences be for Bitcoin, blockchain and the financial world?

After many years on the sidelines, a consortium of large corporations and social impact organizations led by Facebook will soon enter the blockchain space. In the past week, Facebook has given more details regarding their future cryptocurrency, the Libra. It is supposed to be released by the consortium in the first half of 2020.

This article is my first reaction to the Libra White Paper, which describes Libra as a cryptocurrency with low volatility that will make use of its native Libra blockchain. What follows is a description of Libra as described in the White Paper, and 11 predictions about its consequences for the blockchain and financial world.

Goal of Libra
The goal of the Libra Association is to create a stable currency that makes use of a secure and stable open-source blockchain. Open-source means that the source code is public for anyone to see. In order to keep the currency stable, it will be backed by Libra Reserves – a basket of low-volatility assets, such as bank deposits and short term government securities in currencies from stable and reputable central banks such as the USD, EUR, CNY, and GBP. These assets will be managed by a global network of custodians. The Libra will thus enjoy the benefits of stable traditional government money and the benefits of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies. Users of Libra should theoretically be able to make transactions with Libra coins with low costs, and within immediate speeds to anyone anywhere in the world.

The Libra Association is hopeful that it will give a boost to better and cheaper financial services, therefore, making financial services accessible for everyone.

Considerations for building the Libra blockchain
The Libra blockchain has been developed, while taking the following three requirements into consideration:

  1. It must be scalable to accommodate billions of accounts, meaning that it can process a high transaction throughput with low latency.
  2. Funds and financial data must be secure.
  3. It must be flexible enough to power the ecosystem’s governance and future implementations of innovative financial services and upgrades to the network are possible.

In order to make the above possible, the association has chosen to:

  • Develop a new programming language, called Move. The goal of Move is to make the development of “smart contracts” and transaction logic more secure. Hence, with fewer risks that a software developer writes mistakes into his code that lead to unforeseen bugs and unpredictable behavior of the software.
  • In addition, a Byzantine Fault Tolerance consensus protocol suitable for processing a great number of transactions will be used. This protocol will also be more energy efficient, than for example Bitcoin’s “Proof of Work” consensus protocol, and have less network latency. The protocol is a set of rules determining how consensus about the correct state of the blockchain within a blockchain network can be reached and what the requirements are for approving transactions.
  • Finally, according to the White Paper, the blockchain will be pseudonymous and will offer users the option to create multiple addresses that cannot be linked to their real-world identities.

The Libra Association
The Libra Association will consist of a consortium of around 100 founding members. It has approximately 30 members so far. Among these members are PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, Spotify, Über and Ebay. In order to become a founding member, they had to put in $10 million for the Libra Rerserve. In addition to commercial corporations, there are also social impact organizations such as Women’s World Banking and Kiva. The members of the consortium will receive Libra Investment Token (LIT) with which they can participate in the governance of the Libra Association. It is also possible that they will be rewarded with LIT for maintaining the blockchain and approving the transactions.

Facebook is going into the banking business with ...
The founding members of the Libra Association so far.

The Libra Association will manage the Libra Reserve for the stability and growth of the Libra economy. The interest earned from the reserves will be used to cover their costs. The Libra Association will be the only party that can issue and burn (destroy) Libra tokens. When authorized resellers have bought Libra from the Association with fiat money, new Libra will be issued. Libra will only be burned when authorized resellers sell their Libra to the Libra Association in exchange for their underlying assets. The Libra Reserve thus acts as the “buyer of last resort”. The policy of the Libra Association can only be changed through majority consensus of the members. It’s still unclear how much consensus is needed to change the Association’s policies. It’s also unclear how much consensus is needed to approve a transaction. It’s expected that this will be similar to other Byzantine Fault Tolerance protocols and that 67% consensus is needed.

Another goal of the Libra Association is to develop a standard for open digital identities. Such identities are, according to the Association, a prerequisite for financial inclusion.

Permissioned blockchain
According to the White Paper, the blockchain is permissioned. This means that not everyone is able to run the blockchain on their own computer – only the members of the Association are allowed to do so. They are nonetheless planning to make the transition towards a permissionless environment in which everyone can run his or her blockchain node within 5 years.

Is the Libra blockchain really a blockchain?
Although the Libra Association asserts that Libra is blockchain-based, one could argue that it’s actually not. Blockchains normally make use of data blocks that are chained to each other. Libra, on the other hand, is a single database and does not make use of such blocks. It acts more like a payment scheme.

For more details regarding this topic, see the following article of Simon Lelieveldt.

If Libra does not make use of a blockchain, is it a cryptocurrency?
Some may believe that Libra is not a real cryptocurrency if it does not make use of blockchain. However, in order to be consistent, they should then also maintain that B-money – a precursor to Bitcoin with many similar properties as Bitcoin, but without the use of blockchain – is not a cryptocurrency.

I will not get deeper into the discussion whether Libra is a blockchain or a cryptocurrency.

Calibra wallet
Libra will be implemented into the ecosystem of Facebook and will also be available in other applications owned by Facebook, such as Messenger, Whatsapp, and Instagram. The wallet in which Libra will be stored is called the Calibra wallet.

What will be Libra’s consequences for the blockchain and financial world?
It’s difficult to make correct predictions about Libra, especially since many details about Libra are still missing. Nonetheless, there some predictions I already dare to make.

  1. The Libra blockchain will not be entirely neutral and borderless. The Libra Association will conform to governmental rules and regulations. It will hence be unlikely that transactions to sanctioned countries, such as Iran, will be approved.
  2. The Libra blockchain will compete with banks and fintech companies. It will introduce innovative financial products that will directly compete with financial products offered by banks and fintech companies. Also, Libra transactions will not require payment service providers and intermediary banks and schemes to facilitate the transactions. People could, for example, be able to send money abroad with low transaction costs, and pay with Libra for Über rides and Spotify without traditional payment facilitating intermediaries.
  3. Libra will compete with central banks. Libra could undermine the demand for national currencies – something that central banks and national governments will not accept. Shortly after the announcement of Libra, French and Russian politicians have already expressed their worries that Libra will undermine their national financial system. In addition, it will also be more difficult for central banks to prevent capital flight. Recently, voices have been raised in the United States to (temporarily) stop the development of Libra in order to make sure it will not compete with the USD. Thus, it’s still unsure whether the Association will be able to release Libra in the first half of 2020.
  4. Libra will lead to tension with rules and regulations, and show that current financial rules and regulations are outdated. The call for clearer regulations with respect to cryptocurrencies will grow.
  5. Libra will show that those who say “cryptocurrencies are not interesting, it’s all about blockchain” are dead wrong. Cryptocurrencies will be a tremendous force for mainstream adoption of blockchain, just like e-mail was for the internet.
  6. Libra will compete with stablecoins. Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that are pegged to assets with stable value. Think for example about the USD, the EUR and precious metals. Stablecoins that already exist are Tether (USDT), Gemini Dollar (GUSD), bit.USD, and Coinbase Dollar (USDC).
  7. It’s unclear how the Libra Association will handle their users’ privacy. I expect that users will be required to provide private information if they would like to make use of the Calibra wallet. The White Paper mentions that having a digital identity is a prerequisite to make use of Libra. However, it also mentions that users will be able to create wallets that cannot be linked to their real-world identities. In addition, it’s also unclear how the Association will deal with users’ transaction data. The Association members will be able to view all transaction data as they are allowed to run a Libra node on the network.
  8. The people that will benefit most from Libra are those who are still facing big barriers to participate in the financial world. If Libra is able to lower the barriers of entree, it will greatly improve the financial opportunities of the unbanked.
  9. Libra will lead to more intensified discussions about what money is. People will become more skeptical about national currencies, and more will become convinced of the benefits of privately issued currencies like cryptocurrencies.
  10. Libra will make people more familiar with cryptocurrencies and better educated about the benefits of blockchain.
  11. In the long run, people will look for alternative currencies that cannot be controlled by governments and central banks. They will hence make more use of cryptocurrencies that are open, public, borderless, neutral and censorship resistant like Bitcoin. These currencies will eventually benefit from Libra.

Conclusion
Libra is an interesting development that will benefit the blockchain space, as well as the financial world. The members of the Libra Association already have a combined reach of more than 2.5 billion people, so they can accelerate mainstream adoption of blockchain. Users will be able to perform transactions against lower costs and with immediate speed. Those that will benefit most from Libra will be mainly people from developing countries.

Eventually, though, Libra will lead to greater adoption of cryptocurrencies that are truly open, public, borderless, neutral and censorship resistant like Bitcoin.

Blockchain Distributed Governance

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This is a cross-post from the blog of the Centre for the Study of Governance & Society at King’s College London.

Over the last two decades online services have transformed from a product of a multitude of enterprises to being dominated by a handful of corporate-owned platforms such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. They specialize in connecting media producers to users. These are often mutual interactions with users both producing and consuming content. These platforms play an increasing role governing commercial exchange, as well as civil discussion, with plausibly pernicious implications for liberal democracy. As I propose in a recent paper ‘Markets for Rules’, blockchains offer a promising solution to this danger by helping to displace corporate ownership in favor of common platforms sustained by users themselves.

Corporate concentration has produced enormous efficiencies and innovations, improving user experiences and boosting investment in hardware and infrastructure. But it has also had several bad consequences. These enterprises face extremely low marginal costs and network effects whereby additional users add value to an existing user-base. Some of these effects are explained by these platforms’ business models of collecting personal data to target advertising more effectively at customers. The more interactions on a single platform users have with each other, the more useful the data for advertisers. The result is overwhelming returns to scale and a winner-takes-all competition for profits.

This has troubling implications for economic inequality, especially if we end up with a handful of corporations taking a bite out of every conceivable transaction. Of greater concern is the way owners exert control over who can join and what people are allowed to do on their platforms. Content producers can be demonetized or banned, effectively denying them access to a user-base or revenue. Online sellers can find themselves frozen out of a platform payment system without legal remedies. Controversial or unpopular producers survive at the whim of executives or, at best, a patchily enforced official policy.

This reliance on private governance is a problem for consumers, producers and ultimately citizens. But it is also a challenge for executives who find themselves mediating acrimonious personal disputes and political debate. With all the data in the world, they struggle to judge consistently what belongs on their platforms. The fact that these corporations have ended up functioning as unofficial censors and wielders of sanctions has led some commentators to propose regulating these platforms as public utilities or, more radically, nationalizing them so that access to them is decided democratically. These solutions have their own perils because any centralized system of monopoly control, whatever the underlying democratic credentials, can produce authoritarian outcomes. Liberal democracies up until now have been sustained by an independent civil society constituted by overlapping and competing spheres of governance, not the monopoly of either democratic or corporate government.

The prosecution of the CEO and founders of Backpage, who failed to exclude sex workers from their platform, illustrates the reliance of these private enterprises on government support on controversial policy issues even in relatively free societies. The combination of privately-developed data-collecting networks with over-arching state control is arguably reaching a nadir in China which is rolling out an unaccountable surveillance system of ‘social credit’ that can identify political dissidents and automatically exclude them from significant spheres of civil society.

Is there a way that blockchains can help navigate around the centralising and authoritarian impetus of technology-facilitated governance? Blockchains emerged from two pre-existing technologies – public ledgers and asymmetric cryptography – to produce a way of sharing data across a network that is resistant to manipulation by unauthorized actors. Initially conceived as offering alternatives to state-backed currencies, blockchains are now used to build decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and dapps (decentralized apps). They can supply similar functions as corporate platforms but without an overall owner.

These systems are sustained by rewarding network participants with tokens (through completing intensive computing processes called mining). Tokens are convertible into ordinary currency, albeit currently at volatile rates. The entrepreneurs that build these platforms typically reward themselves and investors a large stake in those tokens but once the network is launched, they do not have control over how it is utilized. The rules of each network are self-enforcing. These rules can be changed, either through the original (or new) developers launching a rule-set that others may choose to switch over to (a fork). Alternatively, the rule-sets might contain provision for amendment. Such amendment schemes are, of course, open to manipulation as is the case for all political processes. Nevertheless, what these schemes offer is a way of interacting and exchanging at large distances without an overarching ruler. Instead, conduct is permitted on the basis of fixed rules enforced mechanically by people’s decisions to participate in the system. One way of looking at these schemes is that they have decentralized properties of communal norms, combined with the possibility of more deliberate design and experimentation of more formal rules and institutions. I call this common government.

The implications of this new technology and kind of governance might turn out to be very far-reaching, approaching that of the development of the Internet itself or even the printing press. But what could it mean for familiar Internet platforms in the medium-term? First, participating in mutual platforms might better align the incentives of users and platform designers. Right now, platform owners rely on squeezing as much data out of users as possible in order to sell it on to advertisers and to sell additional services. Mutual platforms, without responsibilities to shareholders, can experiment with different funding models. Individual users might elect to sell access to their profile to advertisers but the data itself can be made more secure as it will be a property of an encrypted network rather than a profile stored in a central private database. Privacy can be better assured than private management with public regulation.

Second, the networks can be more robust both to natural and political perturbations. Under decentralized protocols, ordinary users help store and serve content to each other. With the addition of blockchains, these users can be compensated for making their idle computer resources available for network use. This means that data doesn’t have to travel so far as is currently the case from host to user and the network as a whole can better cope with outages from particular nodes without data loss. Without a central controller, there is no particular agent that a government can coerce or punish for allowing specific interactions over a platform. Governments would then face the more difficult choice of permitting or prohibiting Internet communications altogether. It is thus more robust against arbitrary government censorship and manipulation of trade.

The relationship between users on a platform is mutual. The relationship between users and platform owners, however, is presently hierarchical – a private dynamic that government agencies can exploit. What blockchains may eventually permit is the provision of relatively efficient networks reliant neither on a single public agency nor private owner.

Learn more about Nick’s work here.

What’s the biggest takeaway from my Blockchain classes?

We are nearing the end of my first semester as a Blockchain lecturer at a local university. We have discussed many topics, such as cryptography, consensus protocols, tokenization, smart contracts, how to build your own crypto-token…

During the final examination, I have asked what their biggest takeaways are from my classes. Do you know what the biggest takeaway is among most students?

It’s that they will never look at government and money the same way again. None of them had heard of the word Libertarian before, but now they leave the classes a little more sceptical of government and hopefully a little more libertarian.

Timothy C. May, crypto-anarchist hero (1951 – December 15, 2018)

Tim May
Timothy C. May

News has arrived that Timothy May, the founder of the crypto-anarchist movement has died on December 15th, 2018. He has been a hero and inspiration for many in the crypto-anarchist/anarcho-capitalist community for his ideas to spread freedom and privacy through the use of cryptography.

Once an Intel senior engineer, he has written extensively about privacy, cryptography, and internet freedom. Without a doubt, he has been a great influence on the likes of John Perry Barlow (declaration of independence for cyberspace), Nick Szabo (smart contracts and Bitgold), Wei Dai (B-money), and Satoshi Nakamoto – the inventor of Bitcoin and blockchain. He has also contributed extensively to the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list, the same list that Satoshi initially used to spread his Bitcoin whitepaper and to invite cryptographers to join further developments of Bitcoin.

In his Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities (1994) paper, May describes Crypto anarchy as

the cyberspatial realization of anarcho-capitalism, transcending national boundaries and freeing individuals to make the economic arrangements they wish to make consensually.

He furthermore writes that

Digital cash, untraceable and anonymous (like real cash), is also coming, though various technical and practical hurdles remain. “Swiss banks in cyberspace” will make economic transactions much more liquid and much less subject to local rules and regulations.

Acknowledging the possible negative sides of crypto anarchism, May sees the development of crypto anarchism as mostly good. He believes that criminal activity within a crypto anarchist community are mostly exceptions and not the rule. He writes,

Is this a Good Thing? Mostly yes. Crypto anarchy has some messy aspects, of this there can be little doubt. From relatively unimportant things like price-fixing and insider trading to more serious things like economic espionage, the undermining of corporate knowledge ownership, to extremely dark things like anonymous markets for killings.

But let’s not forget that nation-states have, under the guise of protecting us from others, killed more than 100 million people in this century alone. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot, just to name the most extreme examples. It is hard to imagine any level of digital contract killings ever coming close to nationstate barbarism.

Few mainstream news outlets today will write about Timothy May’s death and impact on our world, but for us who aspire to uphold Bitcoin’s initial principle to make (financial) freedom and privacy absolute, he will always be remembered for his inspiring contributions to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property.

Small thought on the fundamental revolution of Blockchain

Mankind made a huge leap forward regarding human organization when it implemented the Constitution. Man was no longer to be ruled by kings and despots, but by a document that stipulated the rule of law. Still, we had the issue of who was going to interpret these laws and who was allowed to add new rules.

Now, we have made another revolutionary leap forward in human organization. We don’t need a third party – kings, governments, courts – to interpret the laws anymore if we have self-executing smart contracts that eliminate the need to trust these third parties. Trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code. On top of that, everyone is free to opt-in, to submit new rules, and to participate in a set of rules. No one is forced to participate. You can always secede. We have had many secessions in the blockchain space. Bitcoin Cash seceded from Bitcoin Core, Ethereum seceded from Ethereum Classic etc. It is therefore a peaceful means to organize human beings.

This is, in my opinion, the fundamental revolution of blockchain: a peaceful trust machine for social agreements and human organization.

Blockchain trust

Opportunities for blockchain-based social media in developing countries

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On September 22nd, I presented my Serey project – a blockchain based social media platform in Cambodia – at BitFest 2018 in Amsterdam. It was organized by the BitShares Foundation and mainly attended by enthusiasts of BitShares and Graphene technology. Being part of the Bitshares/Graphene family, I was invited to speak at the conference.

We shared the stage with other graphene projects as BitSpark, DasCoin, PayGer, BitCrab, RuDEX and many others. I look forward to work together with anyone that seeks to decentralize our future, that has a vision in which every human being is free, and where blockchain technology provides the tools to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property.

Stan Larimer was there as well, and he had something interesting to say about how BitShares will import EOS technology through a middle-layer. This will greatly benefit the whole BitShares/Graphene community, including Serey.

Regarding my own presentation, I have made the case that Blockchain is not only a technological revolution, but essentially a social, political and economic revolution. I believe it’s a tool that will move us into a more decentralized world that was envisioned by the earliest internet adopters. As more internet applications were built, it became clear that it would not become as decentralized as these adopters hoped. These applications suffered from a centralized system in which data was stored and controlled on a single or a small number of servers. Those who controlled these servers, the men-in-the-middle, dictated the rules of the platform. They could look into your data, modify your data, prevent you from accessing your data etc.

Blockchain eliminates these so-called “men-in-the-middle”. Its censorship-resistant property provides many great opportunities for developing countries where the rule of law are often weak or underdeveloped. One opportunity that I have been trying to seize in Cambodia is the creation of a social media platform that could not be controlled or censored by a single party. As Cambodians are becoming more tech savvy, and more connected to the outside world through internet access, it’s a great time to roll out a Blockchain-based social media platform where people can express themselves freely. The advantage of a social media is that it’s easier to build the network effect that can reach critical mass in a relatively short period of time. Once we gain enough momentum, I would like to tokenize the national currency, the Riel, develop a Serey Wallet, and provide anyone who has access to the internet the opportunity to open a wallet (bank account) for free and use our tokenized Riel for e-commerce, remittances, savings, loans etc. Although Cambodia has experienced tremendous economic growth in the past two decades and the World Bank has moved Cambodia’s status from a lower-income bracket to a lower-middle-income bracket, 83% of Cambodians still remain unbanked.

Doing so, I hope we will promote freedom of expression and an intellectual society in Cambodia, as well as help banking the unbanked.

Below, you can find my slides for the presentation.

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The promise and peril of blockchain distributed governance

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I was very fortunate to learn that my essay ‘Markets for rules‘ has won the Mont Pelerin Society’s 2018 Hayek essay competition for young scholars (one of the perks of academia is being defined as young well until your 30s). I am now looking forward to presenting at MPS’s famous conference, originally organised by F.A. Hayek to build the post-war intellectual case for liberalism.

The essay is an attempt to explain the governance possibilities of blockchain technology through the lens of new institutional economics and more specifically private governance. Blockchains allow people to develop rules that can then be enforced autonomously by the participants that use them without further central direction. This could allow communities to rely more on common rules and less on formal coercive authorities to achieve widespread social cooperation. I am cautiously optimistic about the technology (it could also turn into a dystopian nightmare) though not any particular currently existing blockchain.

Here is the abstract: Classical liberals seek the paradoxical: government powerful enough to protect individuals from preying off each other, but limited enough to prevent it becoming a fierce predator itself. The emergence of blockchain technology heralds a potential revolution in our collective capacity to implement limited government. Blockchains offer a more secure and transparent way of implementing rules while permitting individual choice between rulesets that can co-exist at the same time and place. What this could ultimately mean is that a great deal of what we have traditionally conceived to be governance might be disintermediated from the territorially defined monopolistic coercive authorities that classically define states.