Google forgoes currency over regulatory fears

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Google chairman Eirc Schmidt says the Internet search giant once considered creating its own peer-to-peer money system, dubbed Google Bucks, but binned the idea because of regulatory concerns.

In a speech at the Mobile World Congress, Schmidt said the company had developed various proposals for creating a virtual currency that could be used for P2P transactions across its platforms.

However, the plans were put on ice because of fears that the company would fall foul of international money laundering and currency compliance issues.

“Governments are typically wary of the potential for money laundering with such proposals,” Schmidt said. “We decided we didn’t want to get into that because of these issues.”

Regulatory barriers have stunted the growth of other digital currency pioneers such as Bitcoin, which has seen banks and card schemes pull support for third party exchange operators amid concerns over the legality and risks associated with dealing with unlicensed money transmitters.

Even Facebook, which pulled in revenues of $557 million from its nascent payments business in 2011, is treading cautiously.

Echoing Schmidt’s concerns, Facebook’s IPO filing suggests that regulatory demands may slow its progress in the payments arena:

“Depending on how our payments product evolves, we may be subject to a variety of laws and regulations in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, including those governing money transmission, gift cards and other prepaid access instruments, electronic funds transfers, anti-money laundering, counter-terrorist financing, gambling, banking and lending, and import and export restrictions.”

The filing confirms that Facebook has already applied for money transmitter licenses in the US. This will mitigate regulatory uncertainty and “increase flexibility in how our use of payments may evolve” states the firm.

Google’s effort to break into the mobile payments market is suffering further strife with the departure of its founding engineer, Jonathan Wall, and its product lead, Marc Freed-Finnegan, to set up their own payments start-up.

Wall and Freed-Finnigan left Google earlier this month to start work on a new stealth operation, dubbed tappmo. Pitched as a “disruptive innovator” on the company’s holding Web page, tappmo promises to create “a next-generation commerce network” to fuel the mobile shopping revolution.

Wall’s and Freed-Finnigan’s departures come two months after Google’s head of consumer payments Vikas Gupta quit the firm in January. Gupta joined Google after it acquired the company he founded and led, Jambool, operator of virtual currency platform Social Gold, for over $50 million in 2010.

After suffering a number of security set-backs in recent months, Google’s ambitions to lead the race to bring mobile payments to the high street appear to be fading fast, with the mobile carrrier consortium Isis outgunning Google in operator, terminal and bank support. The Internet search giant has so far signed up only one secondary carrier Sprint and has failed to convince more banks to join Citi in support of the platform.