OPINION: Déjà GovCoin All Over Again


In less than two weeks, Facebook faces likely hostile back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill regarding its planned cryptocurrency Libra. The social media giant shouldn’t expect anything more than pointed questions and lectures regarding civics, national security, and online privacy.

There is very little that the US Congress can do before the Libra Association launches the digital currency sometime next year. There is a slight chance that the divided Congress will pass any meaningful legislation to rein in Facebook and Libra. That chance becomes slimmer as the 2020 Presidential election gets closer.

The only real way to derail Libra would be to have national governments and their central banks to put diplomatic pressure on Switzerland’s financial regulator.

Libra’s launch is pretty much a done deal, especially once it switches to a decentralized model.

However, existing does not ensure thriving adoption.

The Libra Association has done a good job bringing some of the largest technology, telecom, and payment vendors to create the digital currency’s needed infrastructure, but its merchant support is wanting.

The digital currency’s backers say that they want to reach the approximately 500,000 unbanked people who have mobile Internet access via their mobile phones.

Launching with travel-booking, ride-sharing, online music, and designer fashion vendors is a severe mismatch with its targeted audience.

If the Libra Association cannot get buy-in from Main Street retailers, service providers, as well as local and national governments, it has created yet another high profile digital remittance tool.

This is not the first stablecoin that has faced this buy-in conundrum.

In 2016, the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions partnered with blockchain-startup GovCoin, Barclays, and others for a pilot that distributed welfare payments via GovCoins, which were backed one-for-one to the pound in the northwest of the country.

The technology worked, but the system failed at the last three feet: Most high street merchants simply shrugged when customers presented their GovCoin cards.

If a national government cannot get its stablecoin backed by its currency afloat for government payments, how will the Libra Association convince merchants and their upstream supply chain to accept the new stable coin?

As with any new technology, digital currencies do not have to be as good as the legacy technologies they replace, but better than what they replace. Until the Libra Association can demonstrate to merchants Libra’s added value, it will not see broad adoption beyond early adopters and speculators.

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