Bill Black discusses Feacebook’s new proposed crypto-currency, called “Libra.” Facebook could use this technology to standardize identity and create a world of ultimate surveillance, and then profit from it, says Black
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. When Facebook announced the launch of a new currency— some call it a cryptocurrency, some say it’s not, but it’s called Libra— the reaction was swift and negative from many quarters from left to right, libertarian to socialist, from progressive and conservative experts alike. But many differed on why Libra would be a bad idea. Maybe it’s not. A cryptocurrency controlled by Facebook may turn Facebook into an even more state-like institution, some say, with its own internal economy, the ability to impose economic policies on his customers as if they were citizens of a state. Most important for most analysts and people paying attention to any of this is that Libra seems to give Facebook even more power to control our private data with the ability to use the unprecedented alleged currency for a tool for surveillance. Will that happen?
In the white paper written by Facebook about Libra, the following short text was buried, which might shed light on what Libra is really all about and many have used this one piece to talk about it. The quote is, “An additional goal of the association is to develop and promote an open identity standard. We believe that decentralized and portable digital identity is a prerequisite to financial inclusion and competition.” Well, to parse through all of this jargon and confusion, we once again turn to Bill Black. Bill Black is of course the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. He teaches Economics and Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was the Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005 to 2007, and a central figure in exposing the congressional corruption during the savings and loan crisis. Bill, good to have you back.
BILL BLACK Thank you.
MARC STEINER So let me—Where do I begin? There’s so many places to start this. Let me just start with, can we just take maybe a minute and a half for you once again, for our viewers, to define this notion of cryptocurrency and what Libra has to do with that?
BILL BLACK Okay, but the reason there’s what you refer to as confusion is because there’s confusion inherent in this design, and here’s what I mean by that. Libra can be changed at any time to do virtually anything by a two-thirds vote of an “association.” This association is made up of the usual for-profit actors in the world— the big credit card companies, etc. And more private for-profit entities can buy-in. So they can make Libra into most anything that is conceivable to make, and any promises that it won’t be used in certain ways are completely hollow because Facebook is not going to run Libra like we would trust. If Facebook did run Libra, but— [laughs] Even if Facebook gave us promises, which it’s done in the past and lied about, and somehow we believed that this would never occur again, and Facebook had turned over a new leaf—Facebook doesn’t control it! A bunch of other really nasty heads of these control it.
MARC STEINER Like who? Like what? What do you mean by that? Like what?
BILL BLACK Like the credit card companies and such own it and whoever wants to. Whoever finds that it would be sensible to take over this organization can take it over, get a two-thirds vote, and then Libra, they can make into almost anything.
MARC STEINER Well, let me just ask a quick question here because there’s a lot to parse through in the 10-15 minutes that we have together. So what do you—Who are these organizations? What do we mean by that? I mean, Libra was created by Facebook as allegedly some kind of account mechanism. People could buy things online and whatever else that we can do, which we’ll talk about, but who is this association? What do they have to do with Libra if it was founded by somebody else?
BILL BLACK Okay, so this is in large part— “watch my left hand, watch my left hand.” [laughs]
MARC STEINER I never did trust you, Bill. [laughs]
BILL BLACK I can understand, and I think no one trusts Facebook. As you said, this is the universally hated corporation. The right is like—The libertarians are writing saying, “God, the government has to protect us from these people.” [laughs]
MARC STEINER And we all use it.
BILL BLACK That type of thing. And so, is it a cryptocurrency? Well that’s in the never, never land of what the hell the definitions are. I would say, no. What it is, is a system that uses blockchain, but anybody can use blockchain. Blockchain is simply a technology that widely distributes information and keeps a registry so that certain information, not nearly most frauds, much less all frauds, are more difficult. All right. Now, it’s still vulnerable to all kinds of computer attacks that would create all kinds of spurious information and, you know, bitcoin, for example, would break down instantly if it were subject to an effective attack. That way they created tons and tons— by which I mean literally millions of pieces of false information— so anything that uses blockchain is subject to that kind of computer harassment.
The currency isn’t really a currency, right? It says, what you get is a right to something that is created in a reserve. Who controls this reserve fund? Well, that would be this association of for-profit folks of which all the worst actors in the world [laughs] are going to be members, right? And already are such members. So what can they do? They can buy currency, but if they do that—You don’t pay interest on currency, you may have noted, and these clowns are going to want to make lots of interest. So they’re also allowed to do bonds and other such things. And as I noted, with a two-thirds vote, they can invest in anything like toxic mortgages.
MARC STEINER So let me ask my next question here with that, so I was going to wait until later in the conversation to do this but let me do it now. So as a person who was a regulator, should regulators take an interest in this? I mean, when we have a financial crisis, they always seem to start with an unregulated sector somewhere, right? And Libra will in effect, some people have written that Libra in effect will be like a giant shadow bank. And if regulators are concerned about that effect, Libra’s effect on anything— financial stability— you know, they’ll have to come up with a solution. So does that mean that Facebook has to become a regulated bank subject to capital liquidity requirements? You know, like what happened to Goldman-Sachs or anybody else? I mean, does that fall into this category? How do you—There are two aspects of what I think we have to talk about in terms of control. Let’s start with this one.
BILL BLACK Okay. So it isn’t like a shadow bank, it is a shadow bank.
MARC STEINER It is a shadow bank.
BILL BLACK And if it wants to, it can become extraordinarily shadow, right? It, with a two-thirds vote, could invest in anything. It could take your money and buy Macao, you know, gambling joints type of thing. If the People’s Republic of China decides to buy a majority share, it could turn all of its investments into the PRC and such. So lots of things could happen. We don’t know what will happen and it could happen incredibly rapidly with no notice precisely because this thing will be regulated by no one. And because these institutions that control it will have conflicts of interests and incentives to do lots of wild and crazy things to increase their yield.
MARC STEINER So. Okay. So that’s frightening aspect number of what the future could hold.
BILL BLACK Yeah. That’s just one. [laughs].
MARC STEINER Right. So Frances Coppola in Forbes wrote a really interesting piece about this, and she wrote for her that the real concern for Libra was that their business model is to “harvest monetized data,” as she wrote. And she says that’s not changing. That’s who they are. And so, what she found is the sentence we started with, the sentence that’s buried in the white paper, that implied they’re really in this creating Libra to get us to, kind of, store these global digital identities that they’ll control, and that should be really scary. I mean, people like Dave Birch from Consult Hyperion is really, kind of, pushing this idea that “there are no throwaway remarks” in Facebook. He wrote that this is the real danger here, and that’s also uncharted and unregulated territory in many ways. So to me, that’s danger number two and as big as danger number one.
BILL BLACK Yeah, I agree. That’s number two. And, here again, stop me when this sounds familiar. All we have is Facebook saying we don’t intend do it this way, but there’s nothing binding on us and we can change tomorrow. And again, that’s if you believe Facebook, which I think is a group of about twelve people all of whom work for Facebook. The other folks who work for Facebook also doesn’t trust Facebook. [laughs]
MARC STEINER [laughs] So, you know, Facebook came out with— if I remember correctly— this thing, Zynga. You know, this game where people play this Farmville-kind of game, and it had its own currency, and they would spread money around, and they spent millions of dollars, billions of dollars, making money for Facebook. That was a game, but this is something different. They intend to make the same amount of money or more.
BILL BLACK Yeah and it is incredibly dangerous. It will provide them with all kinds of information that they will profit from. Remember, almost all the really biggies, what they’re really doing is not whatever the surface thing is that they tell us. It is, they’re getting data, which they then sell to other folks or sometimes they buy the companies that monetize the value of that information. And so they know all kinds of things about people, and a lot of that information is valuable to others; for example, lenders. So lenders are already trying to figure out, for example, are you a much riskier borrower if at 2 a.m. you’re buying porn, as opposed to buying sundries at Amazon type of thing? All right. So that’s not so great directly, but it also means that there’s information that’s embarrassing. And that means that there is a market for blackmail, as well. And also, of course, intelligence agencies go into these kinds of services and go “ha, ha, ha, what kind of dirt do they have on Fred, because we would like to get Fred to be an agent?” And embarrassing stuff is one of the ways to recruit intelligence assets. So yeah, you’re going to get all kinds of things like that. Now I know the cliché is that younger people don’t care as much about privacy as old fogies and such, but, you know, as soon as they have kids— [laughs]
MARC STEINER No. I think there are a lot of young people who are worried about this, but yeah.
BILL BLACK Yeah. I think that’ll change right quick.
MARC STEINER So while we have this time together, I mean, you were a regulator and I’m wondering why it’s so difficult to regulate currency like Libra, than to regulate the dollar or the euro? Talk a bit about the difficulties are here and what has to happen to change that— if in fact, that can be changed?
BILL BLACK Well, I mean, the easy answer is it shouldn’t exist, so the regulation should—
MARC STEINER Libra should not exist?
BILL BLACK Should consist of the word, no. Or, if you feel emphatic, no, hell no, type of thing, right? Again, this is what [Fed Chairman Paul] Volcker has been trying to emphasize. He said, just once, I’d like some proof that a financial innovation actually made the world better. And he says, in the last 50 years, the only one that he can think of that made the world better was the creation of the ATM, which again, I don’t think millennials use ATMs very much.
MARC STEINER So and, kind of, finally there’s another question about identity and this battle over that quote we had in the very beginning and the battle over who controls our identity and what identity is. There’s the whole notion of sovereign identity that’s been battling against this idea that’s another theoretical framework, so talk a bit about that. I mean, to me, also one of the major things is who controls this identity in the digital age and how we define that?
BILL BLACK So if you want to really have anonymity, if you want to disappear, go off the grid, you have to go off of the entire web. You go onto the web and already, they can find you. Most people who aren’t incredibly sophisticated and disciplined in avoiding any bread crumbs, so that’s going to exist. Also, again back to blackmail, they’re going to have the real identity and the real location of all kinds of folks. So, you know, just very recently it’s broken that the border control agents have had this off-book network—
MARC STEINER Oh. It’s been horrible. We’re going to cover that. Yes. Right.
BILL BLACK of 9,000 folks who, you know, engage in some of the worst stuff. Okay so all that can see the benefit of having that made public, but—That’s the point. You know, whatever you do that’s embarrassing, Facebook can sell or threaten to sell your identity. Or if Facebook doesn’t want to be in that business, and it probably won’t, it’ll just sell it to other people who were in that business and say, us? Not us. [laughs] We had nothing to do with it, you know, type of thing and this can be used for good purposes, so we can’t possibly regulate it. And that will be true at that point, you know, the genie will be out of the box in that session. So yes, those are concerns. As well, you won’t be able to do much of anything where you have a private view, or if a number of like-minded folks want to trade their private views. And again, that’s not unambiguously good stuff as we’ve seen with the border agents, but you can also see why people would value that, right?
MARC STEINER Well, Bill Black, this has really been illuminating and there’s a whole lot more to this. I really do want to explore just how you control things in the 21st century in the digital age, which gives a new definition to monopoly that we never had before as well, given what’s going on. And that’s something for us to explore.
BILL BLACK Nancy Reagan, just say no.
MARC STEINER [laughs] Yes. Nancy, thank you. And, Bill, thank you. It’s always good to talk to you, Bill Black. Thank you so much for being with us.
BILL BLACK Take care.
MARC STEINER And we will cover this more because I think it’s really critically important for us to look at where this digital world is taking us, and how we control it. We’ve been talking to Bill Black and I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.