SAN FRANCISCO – Some of the world’s biggest internet messaging companies are hoping to succeed where cryptocurrency start-ups have failed by introducing mainstream consumers to the alternative world of digital coins.
The internet outfits, including Facebook, Telegram and Signal, are planning to roll out new cryptocurrencies over the next year that are meant to allow users to send money to contacts on their messaging systems, like a Venmo or PayPal that can move across international borders.
The most anticipated but secretive project is underway at Facebook. The company is working on a coin that users of WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, could send to friends and family instantly, said five people briefed on the effort who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.
The Facebook project is far enough along that the social networking giant has held conversations with cryptocurrency exchanges about selling the Facebook coin to consumers, said four people briefed on the negotiations.
Telegram, which has an estimated 300 million users worldwide, is also working on a digital coin. A coin is in the works that will work with Signal, an encrypted messaging service that is popular among technologists and privacy advocates. And so do the biggest messaging applications in South Korea and Japan, Kakao and Line.
The messaging companies have a reach that dwarfs the backers of earlier cryptocurrencies. Facebook and Telegram can make the digital wallets used for cryptocurrencies available, in an instant, to hundreds of millions of users.
All of the new projects are going after a market that has already proved popular with consumers. Venmo has taken off in the United States by making it easier to send payments by phone. And in China, many consumers use the payment system that operates inside the hugely popular WeChat messaging system.
“It’s pretty much the most fascinating thing happening in crypto right now,” said Eric Meltzer, a co-founder of a cryptocurrency-focused venture capital firm, Primitive Ventures. “They each have their own advantage in this battle, and it will be insane to watch it go down.”
In a statement, Facebook did not directly address its work on a digital coin. The other companies declined to comment on their projects. Most of them appear to be working on digital coins that could exist on a decentralized network of computers, independent to some degree of the companies that created them.
Like Bitcoin, the new cryptocurrencies would make it easier to move money between countries, particularly in the developing world where it is hard for ordinary people to open bank accounts and buy things online. The current designs being discussed generally do away with the energy-guzzling mining process that Bitcoin relies on.
But the messaging companies are likely to face many of the same regulatory and technological hurdles that have kept Bitcoin from going mainstream. The lack of a central authority over cryptocurrencies – a government or a bank – has made them useful to criminals and scammers, and the designs of the computer networks that manage them make it hard to handle significant numbers of transactions.
“They are all going to run up against these same types of technological limits,” said Richard Ma, the chief executive of Quantstamp, a firm that provides security audits for new cryptocurrencies.
The companies are throwing significant resources into their projects, even as the prices of cryptocurrencies have plunged over the last year.
Facebook has more than 50 engineers working on its project, three people familiar with the effort said. An industry website, The Block, has been keeping track of the steady flow of new job listings for the Facebook project.
The Facebook effort, which is being run by a former president of PayPal, David Marcus, started last year after Telegram raised an eye-popping $1.7 billion to fund its cryptocurrency project.
Facebook has been coy about what it is building. The team is in an office with separate key-card access so other Facebook employees cannot get in, according to two Facebook employees.
Facebook is looking at several ways to use the blockchain, the technology introduced by Bitcoin that makes it possible to keep shared records of financial transactions on several computers, rather than relying on one big central player like PayPal or Visa.
The five people who have been briefed on the Facebook team’s work said the company’s most immediate product was likely to be a coin that would be pegged to the value of traditional currencies, as Bloomberg first reported.
A digital token with a stable value would not be attractive to speculators – the main audience for cryptocurrencies so far – but it would allow consumers to hold it and pay for things without worrying about the value of the coin rising and falling.
Several other companies have recently introduced so-called stablecoins, linked to the value of the dollar. JPMorgan Chase even said it was experimenting with the concept last month.
Facebook is looking at pegging the value of its coin to a basket of different foreign currencies, rather than just the dollar, three people briefed on the plans said. Facebook could guarantee the value of the coin by backing every coin with a set number of dollars, euros and other national currencies held in Facebook bank accounts.
The company is overhauling its messaging infrastructure, which would connect three of its properties – Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. That integration, which could take more than a year, would extend the reach of Facebook’s digital currency across the 2.7 billion people who use one of the three apps each month.
The big question facing Facebook is how much control it would retain over the digital coin. If Facebook is responsible for approving every transaction and keeping track of every user, it is not clear why it would need a blockchain system, rather than a traditional, centralized system like PayPal.
Working with cryptocurrency exchanges would take at least some of the regulatory burden off Facebook, since the exchanges would be responsible for holding the digital coins and vetting customers.
But if Facebook goes with a coin it does not entirely control, it will be harder for the company to make money from transaction fees and easier for criminals to use the coin for illegal purposes.
Facebook employees have told the exchanges that they are hoping to get a product out in the first half of the year.
The coins from the other messaging companies are likely to look more like traditional cryptocurrencies, with fluctuating values and a decentralized design that would give users more control.
Telegram, which was started by a team of Russian exiles, has prided itself on thumbing its nose at governments. This could help Telegram in places like Iran and Russia, where people – especially dissidents – have difficulty using the traditional financial system.
Telegram sent a letter to its investors last month saying that it was 90 percent done with the key components of the network that would house the Gram, the name for its digital token.
The company has told investors that it hopes to have some version of the system out in the next few months, according to two investors who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.
Another team is building a digital token, Mobilecoin, designed to work inside the privacy-focused messaging application Signal. The project raised $30 million last year and is trying to raise another $30 million, according to three people briefed on the effort.
While the founder of Signal, Moxie Marlinspike, is advising the effort, it is being run independently of Signal. The project is a favorite of many longtime cryptocurrency advocates because of strong privacy controls.
But Mobilecoin, like the other projects underway, will still have to solve the problems that have stopped all the other cryptocurrencies from living up to expectations.
“The jury is still out” on their effectiveness, Mr. Ma of Quantstamp said.
An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between the messaging service Signal and Mobilecoin, a digital coin now being developed. Mobilcoin will work with Signal, but it is being developed independently of Signal.
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