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Facebook : U.S. Presses for Strong Swiss Cryptocurrency Rules

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09/10/2019 | 02:59pm EDT

By Caitlin Ostroff and Parmy Olson

The U.S. urged Switzerland to ensure its regulations governing cryptocurrencies are strong enough to prevent abuse, as the European banking hub prepares to host Libra, a digital currency proposed by Facebook Inc.

The U.S. Treasury, along with other government officials and central bank officials, have raised questions about the Libra currency, which Facebook proposed earlier this year as part of a digital-payments system it plans to base partly in Geneva, and take mainstream to its more than two billion users.

U.S. and Swiss officials met Tuesday in Bern, Switzerland, to discuss regulations that would apply to Libra, and cryptocurrencies more broadly, to prevent the use of such digital cash for money laundering and other illicit purposes.

Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, briefed reporters Tuesday after meeting with Swiss government officials. She said they discussed the need for making sure that Swiss regulations are strong enough to ensure that such digital currencies don't lure bad actors.

Long famous for its bank-secrecy laws, Switzerland has increasingly embraced global norms of financial transparency, and it has also recently promoted itself as a hub for financial technology and innovation. Ms. Mandelker said because of that push, "it's incumbent...to take these particular concerns [up] at the highest level."

A spokesman for the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority declined to comment on the talks with the U.S. It pointed to recent guidance by the agency on how it is combating money laundering that could be conducted through cryptocurrencies.

Facebook said in June that it was preparing a new cryptocurrency to eventually help facilitate all sorts of online payments. It has said the currency would be backed by hard assets, to protect against the sort of wild swings that bitcoin and others have suffered.

It created a subsidiary called Calibra that would distribute a digital-wallet app, as well as the not-for-profit Libra Association, based in Geneva, that would govern the system. Facebook chose to register the Libra Association in Switzerland because of that country's openness to blockchain technology and its long history of global neutrality and stability, Facebook has said.

In a statement, Facebook said it viewed engaging with regulators and policy makers as crucial to Libra's success. "The time between now and launch is designed to be an open, collaborative process. We will take the time to get this right," a company spokesperson said.

Ms. Mandelker said Facebook, as well as other cryptocurrency projects, would be held to the highest standards in the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has in the past raised concerns that Libra and other cryptocurrencies could pose a national security threat as a channel for bad actors to "fund their malign behavior."

Concerned about the risk that cryptocurrencies like Libra could pose in the hands of drug traffickers, terrorists and other bad actors that threaten national security, the U.S. Treasury has championed new standards. It was at the Treasury's initiative that the Financial Action Task Force, a secretive international body that monitors countries' efforts to fight terror financing and money-laundering, in June set new standards for cryptocurrencies. As a member of FATF, Switzerland committed to those new standards.

--Ian Talley contributed to this article.

Write to Caitlin Ostroff at caitlin.ostroff@wsj.com and Parmy Olson at parmy.olson@wsj.com

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