Hot Takes

New digital currency bill in Congress? Here’s the real (crazy) scoop.

An article in the Daily Caller claims that some in Congress are considering a digital currency bill, but the story is based on anonymous sources and has very few specifics. It seems related to something we’ve been tracking for a while and I wanted to share some details in the hope that folks won’t be confused if this “story” gets more traction.

The article says that unnamed members of Congress are supposedly “looking at the compliant capabilities of AML Bitcoin, which is a compliant digital currency.” We’ll return to that odd phrasing in a minute, but first we’ll note that “AML Bitcoin” is a product and a company formerly called AtenCoin. On its website, “AML Bitcoin” also describes itself as a “compliant digital currency.” It’s hard to characterize what exactly is “AML Bitcoin,” so I invite you to take a look at their site and decide for yourself. To be clear, though, AML Bitcoin has nothing to do with Bitcoin and, from what we can tell, it’s a small altcoin project.

Now, here’s the fun twist. “AML Bitcoin” has recently teamed up with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who served time in federal prison for fraud, corruption, and conspiracy, to produce a reality TV show about lobbying Congress on digital currency. (Why can’t it ever be a dull day in this space?) As the Washington Post notes, “[t]he show will follow Abramoff as he leads a group from a cryptocurrency firm AML Bitcoin in a ‘boot camp’ that will transform the members ‘from techies to lobbyists ready to take on Capitol Hill,’ per the show’s creators.” Unfortunately, the headline for that Post article is, “Disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to train bitcoin activists in new reality TV show,” which leads people to think Abramoff is associated with Bitcoin and not “AML Bitcoin.” Here is another article on Abramoff’s tie-up with “AML Bitcoin.”

Now, as far as the bill that members of Congress are supposedly considering, we’ve seen a document floating around the Hill that may be the supposed bill in question. It is an unofficial and inexpert draft of a bill that, if it were taken seriously, would be very dangerous for cryptocurrencies. It’s hard to interpret because it is quote poorly drafted, but essentially it would sort digital currencies into two categories: “anonymous digital currency” and “compliant digital currency,” and then places AML requirements on merchants who accept digital currencies unless they use a “compliant digital currency.” It also has a "Possession Requirement" that requires merchants to "confirm that digital currency has been in possession of purchaser for at least 30 days[.]" Again, it’s hard to interpret the document because its drafting is bizarre and would create many unintended consequences.

We’re fairly certain that folks on Capitol Hill will see through all this, but we still think it's important to highlight these details. What folks in Congress and journalists may not know is the distinction between Bitcoin and AML Bitcoin, and they may not know about the Abramoff reality TV show. We hope they'll be careful as they look into any notional digital currency bills.

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Congress just sent a letter to the IRS about “urgent need for guidance” on crypto taxes.

Today, 21 members of Congress, led by Rep. Tom Emmer, sent a letter asking the agency to issue needed guidance on the tax consequences and basic reporting requirements for taxpayers that use virtual currencies. Congress has now sent four separate letters to the IRS about this issue.

In a statement, Rep. Emmer’s office said:

While initial guidance was provided, ambiguity around basic questions of how taxpayers should calculate and track the basis of their virtual currency holdings is unacceptable. According to a recent report from Coin Center, the 2014 guidance by the IRS failed to address fundamental tax questions, and repeated requests to the IRS for additional clarity have been made by a variety of entities. It also indicates that rather than providing clarity, the IRS has instead increased enforcement activities against taxpayers who “misreport” their cryptocurrency transactions.

Coin Center worked with Rep. Emmer to produce the bipartisan letter, which reflects several of the questions and concerns outlined in our recent report about cryptocurrency taxation, A Duty to Answer. The letter notes that the single piece of crypto tax guidance the IRS has released—the six-page “IRS Virtual Currency Guidance” from early 2014—fails to answer basic questions about crypto taxes, and that taxpayers deserve clarity from the agency. In other words, as the IRS Taxpayer Advocate put it a decade ago, “the IRS has a duty to answer all of the basic questions about transactions undertaken regularly by significant numbers of taxpayers, such as those involving virtual items.” In addition to describing these questions, our report provides common-sense recommendations on how the IRS should answer them.

In signing the letter, Rep. Emmer was joined by the other co-chairs of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus—Reps. Bill Foster, David Schweikert, and Darren Soto—as well as Reps. Patrick McHenry, James P. McGovern, French Hill, Terri Sewell, Warren Davidson, Stephen F. Lynch, Ted Budd, Eric Swalwell, Trey Hollingsworth, Ed Perlmutter, Greg Gianforte, Josh Gottheimer, Mark Meadows, Lance Gooden, Matt Gaetz, Ted S. Yoho, and Bryan Steil.

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Congressional report on cryptocurrency cites multiple Coin Center resources.

Last week, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which serves as nonpartisan shared staff to congressional committees and Members of Congress and operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress, published “Virtual Currencies and Money Laundering: Legal Background, Enforcement Actions, and Legislative Proposals.”

We were pleased to see that the report cites Coin Center resources four separate times: “Bitcoin: A Primer for Policymakers” twice on the first page, as well as “The Bank Secrecy Act, Cryptocurrencies, and New Tokens: What is Known and What Remains Ambiguous” and “Bitcoin innovators need legal safe harbors.” We will continue to publish materials that advocate for good policy on issues related to public blockchain networks and are glad that they are being read by policymakers.

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We held a briefing in Congress on open cryptocurrency tax questions.

Last week we released a report, A Duty to Answer: Six Basic Questions and Recommendations for the IRS on Crypto Taxes, which examines the state of crypto tax policy in the US and calls on the IRS to address the open issues.

Today we took that message to Congress with a briefing for policymakers on the Hill. Coin Center Senior Research Fellow James Foust presented some of the questions raised in the report, explained Coin Center’s recommended actions for the IRS to address them, and fielded questions related to the nature of UTXOs, forks, and more. For a top-line summary of the report you can read his blog post: It is time for the IRS to answer open questions about cryptocurrency

You can see his slides here:

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Brookings has published a report by former CFTC Chairman Timothy Massad on cryptocurrency regulation.

In it, Massad calls for new regulatory authority from Congress for the SEC or CFTC to supervise cryptocurrency markets:

Congress should pass legislation providing the SEC (or alternatively the CFTC) with the authority to regulate the offering, distribution and trading of crypto-assets, including regulation of trading platforms, custodians (or wallets), brokers and advisors.

As we wrote last year, we would potentially support the creation of a new, unified federal regulator for trusted parties in the cryptocurrency ecosystem (exchanges, custodians, etc.) but it must come alongside full federal preemption of existing, vague, and innovation-chilling state money transmission licensing laws as they are applied to cryptocurrency activities. This is something the Massad report doesn’t mention, but that policymakers should consider. Trading fifty-three ill-suited and uncoordinated state regulators for a single specialist regulator is a good deal. It would encourage the growth of these technologies here in the U.S. rather than in other countries with already simpler regulatory regimes. Adding one more federal regulator on top of the existing state law soup is a recipe for pushing innovators overseas.

We also subtly disagree with Massad over which agency should be on point. The SEC should continue to police securities markets, including any issuance or trading of crypto-assets that fit the existing definition of a “security.” No new authority is needed from Congress on that subject. Decentralized cryptocurrencies, however, don’t fit the definition of a security and, owing to their public nature, they do not generate information asymmetries that a securities regulatory regime (focused on issuer disclosure) can efficiently correct. Instead, these assets are more like widely traded commodities, so it makes much more sense to have the CFTC on point, even if that means extending their supervisory authority from commodities derivative markets to commodities spot markets in the limited and special case of cryptocurrencies. Massad is right, though, only Congress through new law could create that authority, and we would support that law if it was reasonably calibrated, directed at the CFTC, and preempted state money transmission licensing.

As we wrote almost exactly a year ago,

These emergent investor protection issues are similar to those addressed by the SEC and CFTC with respect to securities exchanges and commodities futures exchanges. But, a digital currency is not a security and therefore it makes no sense to regulate digital currency exchanges as National Security Exchanges. Digital currencies are commodities, but the CFTC only regulates commodities futures markets, not commodities spot markets. All told, should investor protection issues in digital currency spot markets need to be addressed, they would be best addressed through a de novo regime crafted in legislation and seated within the CFTC. Much of that regime would be focused on investor disclosures, market transparency, and guardrails to prevent and police fraud, market manipulation, and insider trading (issues beyond the scope of this report), but the legislation should also deal with the more straightforward issue of licensing for exchanges that play a role as custodians and payment providers. The public policy goals of state money transmission regulators could thus be subsumed within a larger CFTC-administered investor protection regime. State money transmission laws would then be fully preempted for newly CFTC-regulated digital currency exchanges.

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SEC Chairman Clayton just confirmed Commission staff analysis that found Ethereum (and cryptos like it) are not securities.

We’re often asked whether that policy, articulated mid-last year by Director of the Division of Corporate Finance William Hinman, truly represents the policy of the Commission or whether it’s just the opinion of SEC staff. So, a few months ago we worked with Rep. Ted Budd to send a letter co-signed by several colleagues to Chairman Clayton asking whether he agreed with Hinman’s approach. Now the Chairman has responded:

Your letter also asks whether I agree with certain statements concerning digital tokens in Director Hinman's June 2018 speech. I agree that the analysis of whether a digital asset is offered or sold as a security is not static and does not strictly inhere to the instrument. A digital asset may be offered and sold initially as a security because it meets the definition of an investment contract, but that designation may change over time if the digital asset later is offered and sold in such a way that it will no longer meet that definition. I agree with Director Hinman's explanation of how a digital asset transaction may no longer represent an investment contract if, for example, purchasers would no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out the essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts. Under those circumstances, the digital asset may not represent an investment contract under the Howey framework.

We’re gratified to see that the SEC’s thoughtful approach to applying the Howey test to cryptocurrency comes from the top.

*The headline of this post has been changed from "SEC Chairman Clayton just confirmed Commission staff analysis that Ethereum (and cryptos like it) are not securities." to "SEC Chairman Clayton just confirmed Commission staff analysis that found Ethereum (and cryptos like it) are not securities."

A direct download of this Chairman Clayton's response is available here.

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The Human Rights Foundation wants to help activists and journalists use Bitcoin to stay private.

Though often mischaracterized as “anonymous,” Bitcoin transactions do offer a much higher level of privacy for savvy users than traditional internet payment systems. Activists and journalists may want to add this ability to their toolkit as they make transactions in the service of their essential work.

But Bitcoin privacy is a complicated thing. In a new essay, software engineer Eric Wall examines cryptocurrency privacy and helps clarify the subject for those who need it most. As he explains:

The Bitcoin protocol itself evolves over time, which can lead to dramatic changes in its privacy properties. Changes to the core protocol are seldom simple choices between privacy and transparency alone, but more often come packed with changes to the security, scalability, and backward-compatibility of the software as well. Historically, the trend and ethos within the Bitcoin community has always favored privacy over transparency, but more conservatively so compared to other cryptocurrencies where privacy is the primary focus.

As a result, activists or journalists who are considering using bitcoin to escape the prying eyes of an authoritarian government or a corporation need to understand what type of traces they leave when they’re using it and whether the privacy nature of bitcoin is sufficient for their needs. However, achieving this understanding requires some amount of effort.

This is the first in a series of essays examining the practical applications of cryptocurrency for privacy. They will form the basis for a Coin Center report later this year. You can read the first in this important series here.

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SEC and CFTC Commissioners to headline Coin Center Annual Dinner.

We are excited to announce that SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce and CFTC Commissioner Brian Quintenz will be the evening’s speakers during the Coin Center Annual Dinner!

Join us for a evening of food and drink with the best of the cryptocurrency industry, all while supporting Coin Center’s critical policy advocacy mission.

Monday, May 13, 2018 - 7:00 PM

The Plaza Hotel

768 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10019

Individual tickets are available here.

You can see pictures from past dinners here.

For table sponsorship opportunities contact antonie@coincenter.org.

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Based in Washington, D.C., Coin Center is the leading non-profit research and advocacy center focused on the public policy issues facing cryptocurrency and decentralized computing technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Our mission is to build a better understanding of these technologies and to promote a regulatory climate that preserves the freedom to innovate using permissionless blockchain technologies.