Facebook is rarely accused of humility. But even the world's biggest social network has been self-aware enough to know it has an image problem. The Cambridge Analytica data abuse scandal and the company's inability, or unwillingness, to stop people from disseminating poisonous information on everything from terrorism to self-harm have created a reputational challenge.
So it was logical, when Facebook launched an ambitious effort last week to diversify from communication into finance, that the company chose to spin its Libra initiative as a munificent effort to end world poverty and usury.
True to founder Mark Zuckerberg's history of self-aggrandising, pseudo-governmental claims, it was done via a "white paper" policy document. Six "we believe" declarations, reminiscent of a political manifesto, talked of "advancing financial inclusion" and designing a "global currency and financial infrastructure" as a "public good". It was either very inspiring or very Orwellian.
Facebook's stated goal is, of course, admirable. It is perfectly right to snipe at the high fees charged by banks, payday lenders, currency exchange companies and remittance intermediaries to move money around the world. Rip-offs are common.
But the zealous puritanism is unconvincing. As with any pledge by a US$550 billion ($822.6b) company with 2.4 billion users and a patchy record of trustworthiness, there is good reason to doubt the company's motives. Yes, established financial services companies are sometimes guilty of gross overcharging. But can Facebook be trusted to be a benign revolutionary?
New York University professor Scott Galloway thinks not, warning: "First you get control of the media . . . then control of the money . . . then control of the military." It would be alarming to see the Facebook coin become a default currency of the world, given the unanswered questions around accountability and control. Zuckerberg may not look like a monster in his T-shirts and trainers, but, in true Frankenstein form, he might well have created one.
Even if you take the noble messaging at face value, it is doubtful whether one of Facebook's stated aims — to embrace the 1.7 billion people in the world who are currently excluded from the financial system — is remotely deliverable.
The white paper is packed with highbrow philosophy about what really constitutes money and technical wizardry of Libra's pegged cryptocurrency, but Facebook clearly wants its philanthropic mission to resonate the most.
Financial inclusion is referenced seven times — seven more times than the white paper mentions "revenue" and six more times than it alludes to the touchy topic of "privacy".
If Facebook is a force for ill then this drive for "inclusiveness" is worrying. The company has ambitions to extend its claws into a further 1.7 billion people including, by definition, some of the world's most vulnerable.
But even if it is benign — or at least no more grasping than any profit-seeking company that wants to grow — then there is still a serious question to be asked. Can Facebook really bring a meaningful number of the disenfranchised into the financial economy, giving them the ability to pay bills, borrow money or protect their livelihoods with insurance? A can-do attitude only stretches so far. The harsh reality is that three-quarters of those 1.7 billion financially excluded people do not have internet access, according to the World Bank.
It is fanciful to think that Facebook can simply extend the good work of M-Pesa, the Kenya-rooted phone-based payments service. Owned by Vodafone, M-Pesa operates on "dumb" feature phones, not the pricey smartphones that have underpinned Facebook in the developed world.
Broadband access in many emerging economies is scant. Although 4G networks are expanding, penetration is still low by western standards. Even in booming China, where the average internet penetration is close to 60 per cent, rural populations — accounting for the bulk of the unbanked — are far less likely to be digitally connected.
The other obstacle is regulation. One reason why Facebook will have stressed the financial inclusion message was to win over policymakers. Some regulators have been cautiously welcoming of the initiative, others have threatened "close scrutiny". Either way, that doesn't mean Libra will work as a tool for financial inclusion.
Poor people are less likely to be able to prove their identity — with a passport, long-term home address, utility bill or whatever. In a world where regulatory concerns about money laundering and "know your customer" issues are rising, that is a big problem.
Facebook's white paper describes its plan for a blockchain-based system as "pseudonymous", allowing people to hide their real identity: that might be tenable in the short term for relatively small cryptocurrency platforms, but for a giant like Facebook it is not.
The Libra project, and all the noise it has created, appears to be waking regulators up to the modern world and the need to adapt the rules to the new parameters of digital finance — from cryptocurrencies to the broader payments industry. In that at least, Facebook has spurred a "public good".
Written by: Patrick Jenkins
© Financial Times