Q&A: Blockchain expert Alex Tapscott sees coming crypto war as 'cataclysmic'

Many large companies have taken steps to embrace blockchain, but Facebook's plans for a cryptocurrency and digital wallet have prompted government oversight committees to call for hearings and may have banks taking another look at the distributed ledger technology.

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Facebook's plans to launch a cryptocurrency and digital wallet for users to make online purchases and money transfers should have the financial services community in a tither, with some expecting banks to quickly follow Facebook's lead.

The social network's shift into financial services also has raised the specter of regulatory oversight of cryptocurrency. The U.S. Senate Banking Committee announced Wednesday it will hold a hearing over Facebook's cryptocurrency plans on July 16. The hearing will explore Facebook's project Libra and data privacy considerations associated with it, according to Reuters. In a tweet Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, chair of the House Financial Services Committee, called on Facebook to halt its crypto plans and wants hearings to further study it.

The EU is starting to move toward regulating cryptocurrency exchanges, as well. A year ago, it published its Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD), which is its first attempt to regulate cryptocurrency exchanges at a European level, according to Gartner.

Recent cryptocurrency launches could herald a new financial system where fiat-backed tokens are used on blockchain networks, removing the need for central banks or clearing houses to handle monetary transactions.

Studies show millennials are likely to embrace cryptocurrencies. In October, Edelman research published a report showing 25% of millennials making $100,000 or more, or who have at least $50,000 in investable assets, own cryptocurrency. Nearly another third are interested in using or owning it. Other studies, according to Gartner, report that more millennials own cryptocurrency than own stocks.

Alex Tapscott, the co-founder of the Blockchain Research Institute, a think tank whose members include CIBC, the Depository Trust and Clearance Corp. (DTCC), PNC Bank and tech firms such as IBM and Salesforce, believes Facebook's potential to onboard 2.4 billion users is the most consequential move for the industry to date.

Following are excerpts from a Computerworld Q&A with Tapscott:

Would you consider Facebook the largest and most impactful company yet to embrace blockchain? "Many large companies have taken real steps to embrace blockchain, but this is far and away the most consequential enterprise implementation of blockchain we've seen so far. Facebook is not merely paying lip service to a new technology, they are stepping into the fray with a bold and daring move.

"However, you feel about Facebook as a company, the potential to onboard their 2.4 billion users and the many more who are still not connected to the internet into a fully digital financial system is significant. As we have said for many years, the unstoppable force of blockchain is on a collision course with the seemingly immovable object of the legacy financial system. The impact will be cataclysmic."

How will this affect the traditional financial services industry? "If I was a banker, I'd be frankly quaking in my loafers. A lot of ink has been spilled suggesting Libra is a threat to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Not at all! If anything, Facebook has created the biggest on-ramp ever into a digital financial world. The real threat is to existing banks and financial intermediaries.

"Consider the unbanked: If you're living in Africa or South Asia, you're far more likely to have a Facebook account than a bank account. These folks could be the low-hanging fruit for Facebook. In the same way cell phones allowed billions to leapfrog landlines, blockchain-enabled financial products such as Libra will allow billions more to leapfrog traditional financial institutions."

Facebook highlighted the opportunity Libra represents for developing nations with poor banking systems. But without a bank account, how do you accumulate Libra? "This is not just about the developing world. Like Bitcoin, Libra is yet another alternative to traditional financial institutions and fiat currencies in the developed world as well. There are tens of millions of young people who don't have a bank account but who either already own cryptocurrencies or who certainly have Instragram, WhatsApp or Facebook. Perhaps the next cohort will never have a bank account at all."

What are the inherent risks in Facebook's cryptocurrency platform from a security or privacy standpoint? "There are still many unanswered questions and implementation challenges to successfully launching Libra – and there is a lot Facebook will need to prove before it gains the trust and confidence of users, to say nothing of regulators and their initial banking partners. Having said that, Facebook has clearly given some thought to governance - probably more thought than most were expecting. For example, by putting up a 'big tent' for many other companies and organizations to take part in governance, they are limiting their ability to control this platform unanimously. Still, their initial cabal is mostly large corporations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

"As a company, Facebook has a trust problem and they will need to make user privacy and security a priority. Claiming they won't have access to data and asserting they will make efforts to protect privacy is one thing. Doing it (and earning the trust of users through action) is quite another."

How does Facebook's Libra token spell disintermediation for the banking community? Don't you still have to have a bank account to purchase Libra? "Digital technology has had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of our lives –  except for banking. The institutions we rely on as trusted intermediaries to move, store and manage value, exchange financial assets, enable funding and investment and insure against risk, are more-or-less unchanged since the advent of the internet. This is changing, thanks to blockchain. Libra is only the latest in a wave of revolutionary new innovations that is beginning to disrupt the old model.

"Bitcoin remains the most consequential and important innovation in at least a generation. It laid the ground work for a new internet of value that promises to do to value industries, like financial services, what the internet did to information industries, like publishing.

"At first, the impact on banks will be muted. In fact, Facebook will need to rely on some existing banking infrastructure to successfully launch Libra. Over time, however, Libra could cut banks out of many aspects of the industry altogether. I share the same deep belief that Bitcoin will do the same. If you're a financial intermediary and you collect fees for rent-seeking, sitting in the center of transactions and capturing a fee because of a monopoly business or regulatory favoritism, you are at risk.

"I do have some questions and concerns about what Libra means for the fiat currencies of many countries. Libra will probably be a much more reliable and useful store of value, medium of exchange or unit of account than a lot of smaller and more marginalized currencies. You may not fully trust Facebook, but you'll probably trust them more than the Tin-Pot dictator driving the value of your currency into the dirt. Governments will be quick to pick up on this, and the fight will be epochal!"

JP Morgan Chase earlier this year announced its own crypto currency backed by fiat money. Do you believe this will be a slow trend or something more financial services stalwarts will begin to adopt quickly to stay competitive? "Facebook's really thrown down the gauntlet, both for the big banks and the big digital conglomerates. They've put them on notice. I would expect that in the coming months and years, many big technology companies will launch their own stablecoins. The banks, being more conservative, will follow suit.

"Amazon is the juggernaut in e-commerce in the U.S. and elsewhere; do you really expect [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos to lay down while Libra is being used by his customers? Sure, at first he could fight it, but the market talks louder than words and eventually he will need to embrace it or something like it. Apple runs Microsoft Office, Google Apps are available through the App Store, etc etc. In this sense, Libra and other cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin share some similarities with operating systems.

"Unless you want the payment rail for your business running on some other company's infrastructure, with that company capturing most of the upside, you better get your act together and build a competitor. The crypto wars have begun in earnest. Buckle up."

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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