Hot Takes

Open blockchains have all kinds of startup innovators excited.

That’s what we took away from a fireside chat that Brad Burnham conducted with Peter and me at Union Square Ventures’ office this week. The room was mostly comprised of startup employees from USV portfolio companies that don’t have anything to do with blockchain, but know that something important is happening with this technology and wanted to learn more.

Through the evening we covered a broad range of topics: tokenized crowdfunds and our views on the appropriate way to build those from a regulatory perspective, the new things that the novel features of cryptocurrencies such as micropayments and multi-sig transactions make possible, what decentralized trusted computing platforms (such as Ethereum) are, and the importance of permissionless, open blockchain networks.

It was clear that the animated audience was thinking through how to best apply these technologies to their current and future projects. There was particular interest in tokenized crowdfunding and what this phenomenon means for startups. Could this technology totally change the relationship between investors and businesses? Or businesses and their customers? Will developing open platforms become more economically feasible than it has been traditionally? As more and more entrepreneurial minds begin exploring applications of open blockchains, we’ll soon find out.

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More mainstream use will help regulators understand Bitcoin's benefits.

That’s what Peter Van Valkenburgh, Coin Center’s director of research, said when he went on the Epicenter podcast recently. The wide ranging interview, which covered topics such as the differences between open and closed blockchains and the regulatory considerations for appcoin crowdfunding, is embedded below. Or, if you prefer text, Bitcoin Magazine captured the highlights.

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Why ransomware criminals use Bitcoin and why that could be their undoing.

Last week's major ransomware attack put Bitcoin back into spotlight. With that comes questions about what Bitcoin is, how it works, and why it is apparently favored by ransomware hackers.

Coin Center director of research Peter Van Valkenburgh was on the Marketplace radio show yesterday to talk through these questions. On why hackers are using Bitcoin, he said:

"The efficiency of the network is what criminals are really using it for here. It's electronic cash, so it’s easy to write software that can automatically demand payment and automatically demand that payment has been made."

He goes into more detail on what that means in his blog post, "Why Bitcoin is not the root cause of ransomware:"

"Bitcoin is particularly useful here because it’s fast, reliable, and verifiable. The hacker can simply watch the public blockchain to know if and when a victim has paid up; she can even make a unique payment address for each victim and automate the process of unlocking their files upon a confirmed bitcoin transaction to that unique address.

The truth is that criminals have, as usual, very strict design parameters for the tools they use because there’s no tech-support, contract, or legal recourse for a criminal whose tools fail to perform as they should. Criminals are using Bitcoin in this case because it’s a reliable system that just works. Ransomware hackers are rather like the proverbial rumrunners of prohibition: they like fast custom cars because almost everyone else is still driving a Model T."

Of course, as many have pointed out, there is an inherent problem with the choice to use cryptocurrency in this attack. The open, transparent, nature of bitcoin blockchain transactions means that the global community is closely watching the ransom money. This is going to make converting it into fiat currency pretty difficult to get away with. As Peter told the International Business Times:

"In the US, every major bitcoin exchange is regulated by FINCEN. Right now the $50,000 extorted from victims is just sitting on the bitcoin network...that [exchange into local currency] is where you're vulnerable to being identified."

We’ve detailed how law enforcement can use the bitcoin blockchain to track criminals before and have already seen high profile cases in which blockchain forensics exposed criminals. All they need to do is slip up once and a global community of professional and enthusiast cyber crime fighters will jump on them.

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Get your tickets for the Coin Center Annual Dinner.

The blockchain community’s biggest night out is fast approaching. Please join us on May 22 in New York City, after the first day of Consensus 2017, for a fundraising gala in support of Coin Center’s policy mission.

Wences Casares, CEO of Xapo, will be the evening’s keynote speaker. Casares has been a central figure in driving Bitcoin forward since the earliest days and has an unshakable vision for the technology.

We expect this event to sell out. If you haven’t already, get your tickets today.

Special thanks to the dinner sponsors: Kraken, Fidelity Labs, Poloniex, Alphapoint, Bloq, the Charles Koch Institute, CIGI, Pantera Capital, Perkins Coie, and ShapeShift.

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Wary banks may be choking off the blockchain industry.

Aggressive de-risking is nothing new for digital currency businesses. Last year we released a report documenting the difficulty these startups had been having in securing banking relationships. Now the problem has gotten much worse with three exchanges, including the world’s largest, reporting that they are completely unable to process deposits or withdrawals, leaving customer funds trapped within their system. The Wall Street Journal has the story:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. prohibits banks it transacts with from dealing with virtual-currency exchanges, according to an internal document seen by The Wall Street Journal. Standard Chartered PLC also doesn’t process such transactions, according to a spokesman.

To be able to transact with the wider financial system, bitcoin exchanges must play cat-and-mouse, said Bitfinex’s Mr. Potter, continually switching bank accounts.

“They close one account, we open another somewhere else,” Mr. Potter said. “It’s a battle, but it looks like one that we appear to be losing, largely because we’re the largest such exchange in the world and we’ve got the biggest target painted on our back.”

Digital currency companies are not alone in overzealous targeting for this cut -off from the legacy financial system. Last week a Washington Post report showed that groups attempting to deliver aid to war-torn regions are suffering as well. While the goal of stopping money laundering and terrorist financing is a noble one, the incentives in place today might be driving regulators and banks to go far beyond what’s necessary and reasonable and could drive innovation overseas.

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The CSBS is suing the OCC to stop the new special purpose national bank charter for fintech firms.

In a press release, CSBS (the Conference of State Bank Supervisors) makes some alarming claims, suggesting the OCC is doomed to fall asleep at the switch, allow firms to fail, and leave fintech customers and US taxpayers as hapless victims:

The OCC’s proposed action ... harms markets and innovation, and puts taxpayers at risk of inevitable fintech failures. This is a dangerous combination and one the court should decisively halt

That sounds fantastical. The OCC is a heavy duty regulator with a century-plus-long track record; it’s not as if becoming a national bank is some easy feat, or that compliance costs are trivial. Also, as we and several others have stressed in comments throughout the OCC’s (very transparent and careful) responsible innovation proceeding, applying the patchwork of state-by-state licensing and oversight to global-by-default internet businesses is extremely costly. Any other claims aside, it's hard to imagine how providing a unified federal alternative could be bad for innovation and competition.

Moreover, if the states are doing such a great job at promoting innovation and protecting consumers, then why be so defensive here? The OCC’s charter merely provides a new alternative route to becoming a regulated fintech company; companies are free to continue seeking licensing and oversight from the states if they so choose.

Regardless of who is ultimately in the right here, this could become a turf war between powerful regulators with consumers and companies playing the part of unwitting pawns. This is not the sort of unified approach to regulating innovators that is likely to make the U.S. a technological leader. The Financial Conduct Authority in the UK and the Monetary Authority of Singapore may increasingly become the safest ports in a growing storm.

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Overzealous AML enforcement doesn’t just harm innovation, it can also be deadly.

That’s what the conclusion of new research reported in the Washington Post today showing that the same kind of bank “derisking” that affects the deposits, wire transfers, and access to banking of digital currency firms is also affecting charities trying to save the lives of civilians injured in the Syrian civil war.

Although the hospital was run by the Syrian American Medical Society — a District-based charity that relies on donations — lack of funding wasn’t the issue. And in this case, the brutality of the Syrian regime wasn’t responsible for the supply shortage.

The problem was a U.S. bank.

During the bloody siege, the medical society had tried to wire $80,000 to a vendor in Turkey so its hospitals could stock up on medical supplies. But the U.S.-based bank, in its diligence to ensure the funds weren’t being funneled to overseas terrorists, was holding up the transfer. By the time the money went through six months later, the deadly siege was over.

The problem? AML regulations and enforcement actions have instilled such fear in banks that they won’t take a risk on anything mildly suspicious looking. A representative of the American Bankers Association explained:

“Unfortunately, banks just can’t send funds,” he said. “They look at it and say, ‘We can’t make the distinction between a charity that’s trying to get money to a starving family versus one that is ready to go out and buy a stockpile of Uzis to fire on civilians. We don’t have enough information, we can’t make that call, and if we make the wrong guess, we’re the ones that are in trouble.”

And from what we understand, there’s no simple policy fix. To address the unintended consequences of the federal government’s zealous pursuit of bad actors will require not only a change in law, but a change in culture as well. Financial institutions need to believe that they won’t be fined into oblivion for making one small mistake. This is why banks and policymakers in Congress and the Treasury should take seriously proposals like those by The Clearing House to overhaul the federal government’s AML/CFT regime.

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Amazon, Apple, Google, Intuit, and Paypal just asked Congress for a unified federal alternative to state money transmission licensing.

In a letter to congress, their industry group, Financial Innovation Now, explained how state-by-state money transmission licensing is a major impediment to innovation in financial services here in the US:

Payment innovators currently must obtain and continually update money transmission licenses in nearly every state. Consumer protection is a critical part of payments regulation, but it makes no sense for different states to regulate digital money differently from one state to another, especially if that process significantly delays entry to market and prevents consumers and businesses in many states from having equal and consistently safe access to cutting edge payments technologies.

We've been highlighting the inefficiencies of this state-by-state approach since our inception; it's probably the biggest hurdle to operating a cryptocurrency exchange or hosted wallet in the US, and (given how vaguely the definition of money transmission can be in various state statutes) it's even a potential landmine for open blockchain developers working on non-custodial apps and infrastructure. So we are very happy to see that Financial Innovation Now, with companies like Google and Apple as members, is also disatisfied with the patchwork regulatory landscape for financial technology. And we're thrilled with their suggested solution, a unified federal money transmission license issued by a new sub-branch of the department of treasury: 

Establish an optional federal money transmission license,managed by the Treasury Department, that: 1) oversees application and licensing, safety and soundness, BSA/AML compliance; 2) incorporates a number of existing state money transmitter laws and Uniform Money Services Act requirements; 3) preserves the current state structure for those wishing state licenses; and 4) offers uniform federal law only for an applicant choosing a federal license.

We've previously talked about how the OCC's fintech charter could be the vehicle for that unified approach. A fintech charter wouldn't require new rulemaking or legislation, so in some ways it could be an easier road. But! An entirely new approach would also be a great way to reach that end result, and if the bigger players in the tech world push, a legislative solution might be viable. Exciting times.

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California is back at it; a new (old) virtual currency licensing bill is pending in the Assembly.

The new bill is AB 1123. Over the last two years we’ve been discussing and studying an earlier bill, AB 1326, extensively. That bill went through several iterations: one that was carbon copy of an early N.Y. BitLicense draft, another that was markedly improved with our suggested changes, and finally one that regressed back to an overly broad and potentially innovation-crushing registration regime (that we opposed).

With a new legislative session comes a new bill. This new version has some of the elements we fought for over the last few years. In substance it most nearly resembles the version of AB 1326 that we supported rather than the original or final versions that we opposed. That said, we’re not yet ready to get behind the new bill.

Innovators in California are badly in need of regulatory certainty because the state’s Department of Business Oversight has continually refused to grant virtual currency firms money transmission license or, in the alternative, clearly state that virtual currency firms free from an obligation to get licensed. That has made it impossible to be either fully compliant or fully safe from the crushing criminal penalties of non-compliance.

This bill would remove some of that dangerous uncertainty in California. But clarity in California is only part of the larger goal we should seek: regulatory clarity across all of the states. Our best hope for that outcome right now is getting the Uniform Law Commission’s model Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act passed into law by as many states as possible. We’d prefer California hold-off for the remaining three months until the ULC finalizes and release that model act, and then pass that model act. It is legislative language that has been developed carefully and deliberately over the course of almost two years by top legal as well technical experts in the field. We’ve been fortunate to work very closely with the commissioners and are thrilled with the current draft. Bottom line: It’s a better bill. Enacting the ULC model act instead of AB 1123 would be better for consumers and innovators, and would also make California a leader in promoting uniformity and innovation amongst the states. We’ll be working with our friends in California diligently to hopefully get to that outcome.

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Here’s how the tax treatment of Bitcoin is broken.

I couldn’t have put it more succinctly than this piece in the Wall Street Journal today:

One complication is that the IRS treats bitcoin as property, rather than currency. The property classification has its advantages for investors by treating bitcoin like stocks, a capital asset subject to a more favorable long-term capital gains rate. For bitcoin consumers, though, the downside is a ton of paperwork. Even the smallest transactions using bitcoin to pay for goods or services are technically taxable events, whose gains or losses must be individually tabulated. That is in contrast to more streamlined rules regarding foreign-currency holdings.

If the IRS can’t clear this up, this is a problem that needs a legislative fix and we’re working closely with our allies in Congress to get it done.

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