Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, testifying again today on Capitol Hill, faced pushback from members of Congress skeptical of his claims the social media giant’s proposed Libra stablecoin is intended to help the world’s unbanked.
The hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services was supposed to be about Libra but ranged from banning anti-vaccination ads on Facebook to whether the company will invest anything in public education and housing diversity. The appearance was Zuckerberg’s second testimony before Congress.
Since its announcement by Facebook in June, Libra has faced opposition from lawmakers around the world. Germany and France said they will ban the stablecoin completely as they view a cryptocurrency controlled by a massive private company to be a threat to sovereign financial markets. But Zuckerberg contends that China is but months away from launching public-private partnerships to support a “digital renminbi” that could come to dominate the potential digital currency market.
Zuckerberg described Libra in his opening remarks as the solution to a “stagnant” financial industry that has failed the world’s unbanked. Cryptocurrencies, like Libra, would help the more than one billion people around the world without bank accounts, he said.
“Being shut out of the financial system has real consequences for people’s lives — and it’s often the most disadvantaged people who pay the highest price,” he said. He said 14 million in the U.S. are without bank accounts.
But at least several Democratic members of the committee weren’t buying it.
Representative Gregory Meeks of New York asked Zuckerberg — rhetorically — whether the company had invested anything in minority depository institutions, which help fund endeavors like banking in underserved communities. Meeks also noted that many for-profit companies that talk about helping the unbanked wind up exploiting them for financial gain.
“We have payday lenders who say they’re interested in the underbanked, and those individuals who are supposed to be helped pay more than anyone else!” he said.
Some two-thirds of the world’s 1.7 billion unbanked do not have bank accounts because they simply don’t have money, not because of issues with existing financial infrastructures, said Representative Ayanna Pressley of Ohio.
“You are attempting to use technology to solve what is inherently an issue of wealth,” she said. “At the end of the day, you are a business. What is in your interest to building here? Do you believe in what you are building?”
“Being shut out of the financial system has real consequences for people’s lives — and it’s often the most disadvantaged people who pay the highest price.”
Representative Brad Sherman of California told Zuckerberg that at best, when cryptocurrencies actually work, they do little beyond interfering with the power of the U.S. dollar and enabling criminals to conceal activities like money laundering and drug trafficking.
“The poor and unbanked need pesos,” Sherman said. “They need dollars so they can buy something at the local store. You’ve made no effort to help the unbanked anywhere else and at any other time. The real money is in the tax evaders and, to some extent, the drug dealers.”
Sherman further criticized Zuckerberg’s careful distancing of Facebook from the 21-member Libra Association, which is helmed by former PayPal President David Marcus. For example, Zuckerberg faced questions and criticism from both sides of the aisle regarding plans for the Libra Association to be domiciled in Switzerland rather than the U.S., but the CEO could only state that Facebook does not have control over where the association opts to base itself.
“You’re going to be creating a powerful burglary tool and let your business partner commit the burglary,” Sherman said. He later added, “If this explodes the way it might, you will not be able to hide behind the idea that you didn’t create the Libra organization — that it’s just your business partners that have wallets designed for drug dealers and terrorists.”
Zuckerberg sought to ease concerns by stating that Facebook will not be part of Libra launching anywhere in the world without broad approval from U.S. regulators. If the Libra Association were to move forward with launching the stablecoin in opposition to regulations, Facebook will pull out from the association, Zuckerberg testified.
Today’s Congressional testimony is but the latest migraine Facebook has endured this month. In the past several weeks, some of the largest partners in the Libra Association— Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, Stripe and eBay – -abandoned the group over concerns that the stablecoin will not survive regulatory obstacles. And New York State Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday announced that 47 state attorneys general are investigating Facebook on antitrust violations.