In a project with so many moving parts, much can go wrong. Although Facebook says it has a working prototype, the technology is untested; sceptics doubt that a 100-node system, let alone a bigger one, could process thousands of transactions per second. Hackers are doubtless champing at the bit.
Then there are consortium dynamics. Facebook will have to prove to the other 99 Libra members that it is truly prepared to give up control. At the same time, because important decisions need a two-thirds majority, someone has to knock heads together. The history of information technology is littered with initiatives that collapsed under the weight of internal conflict.
The biggest barrier may be political. Facebook has apparently consulted many regulators. The providers of digital wallets will have to comply with national rules, such as those against money-laundering. Calibra, whose integration into Messenger and WhatsApp will initially make it the dominant wallet, is bound to stoke competition concerns. These may recede as the currency grows bigger and more decentralised, only to be replaced by worries about financial stability.
Libra’s success, then, is far from assured. But it could prove useful even if it flops, for it offers a blueprint for how Facebook itself could one day be governed. The Libra Association’s main task is to oversee the blockchain, ensuring, for instance, that Calibra does not enjoy privileged access to it. An equivalent Facebook Association, some observers have ventured, could be composed of representatives of users, advertisers, data-protection authorities and so on. Their job could be to oversee the “social graph”, another database, which lists all of Facebook’s users and the links between them—and to guarantee that Facebook users can post to another social network, and vice versa.