The Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to address the voracious growth of cryptocurrency markets. Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Christopher Giancarlo offered a bullish perspective on blockchain-based assets. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton delivered a resounding warning to blockchain startups when he said: “I believe every ICO I’ve seen is a security.” Regulators urged congress to create new federal policies.
When Virginia Senator Mark Warner optimistically compared bitcoin adoption to cell phones, the bitcoin community rejoiced. “It was clear from today’s hearing that they also understand, as Senator Warner suggested, that it may be as transformational as mobile telephony, that Americans have a right to own and use cryptocurrencies and tokens,” Jerry Brito, executive director of the nonprofit Coin Center, told International Business Times in an email.
However, most cryptocurrency experts predict months of regulatory uncertainty, followed by years of confusion as congress hammers out new laws.
I was an early investor in cell phones back in the '80s, and I believe #blockchain has the potential to be just as transformational as cell phones. As our government begins to look at #crypto, I don't think you can separate #cryptocurrencies from the technology they're based on. pic.twitter.com/EneUMfcgJ3
— Mark Warner (@MarkWarner) February 6, 2018
Partisan gridlock continues to plague congress. Disagreements over financial policies currently threaten to cripple the federal government. Perianne Boring, the founder of a Washington, DC-based blockchain industry trade association called the Chamber of Digital Commerce, estimates it will take years for congress to shape a regulatory infrastructure for the cryptocurrency market.
“The feds and the states are literally suing each other over who has jurisdiction over what,” Boring told IBT. “Even on the strictly federal level you have a patchwork of regulatory bodies that look at this through their own lenses…for example FINCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network), which said it views bitcoin as a digital currency, and the IRS, which views it as property. Both part of the same Treasury Department.”
The plethora of applicable laws are cumbersome for businesses and confusing for individual users. Boring would prefer a cohesive federal solution. “A big part of what we’re doing is helping build a regulatory framework that helps promote innovation but also addresses consumer protection issues, protecting the retail investor,” she said. The CDC’s Token Alliance, which includes more than 160 blockchain experts, plans to publish a “best practices” guide to help businesses self-regulate and build trust. This falls in line with CFTC commissioner Brian Quintenz’s advice to “self-regulate” while lawmakers sort this out.
Self-regulation is necessary in the meantime, but hardly enough. Business Insider reported the initial coin offering boom raked in $5.6 billion in 2017. Many of these projects are considered “scams” by both regulators and bitcoin veterans. Cryptocurrency newbies are often swindled by questionable investment schemes wrapped in high-tech buzzwords. Boring believes education, plus cooperation between regulators and technologists, is key.
Blockchain Education Day session #2 smart contracts briefing on Capitol Hill featuring @circlepay @SymbiontIO @Microsoft @NLawGlobal pic.twitter.com/i75u9y090j
— Perianne Boring (@PerianneDC) July 11, 2017
Some of token sale projects self-regulate by limiting access to wealthy investors. Many cryptocurrency veterans worry this contradicts bitcoin’s decentralization ethos and threatens to simply recreate elitist economic structures. Broader education could help curb such wealth inequality. “If we are able to overcome this education gap, then we’ll see more people being able to use blockchain-based assets,” Boring said. “It’s hard to say how we should regulate this technology, or definitively what it is, because it is still so young. Just look at the maturation over the past three years.”
According to CoinMarketCap, bitcoin sold for roughly $222.53 on Feb. 9, 2015, yet now costs closer to $8,246.62. The community grew to include millions of users around the world, some of which see bitcoin as a global store of value or a conduit for censorship resistant commerce across borders. Meanwhile, OnChainFX estimates the value of ether tokens grew 18,837 percent over the past two years. Now Canada is exploring Ethereum’s potential for recording government contracts. Russia is tinkering with an Ethereum-based voting platform. Cryptocurrency is more than just money. Unlike paper bills, software is programmable.
This complexity makes harmonious regulation tricky at best. States such as Tennessee, Florida, Arizona and Nebraska have all taken disparate, albeit relatively welcoming, legal approaches to smart contracts. “Blockchain technology can take on this chameleon effect,” Boring said. “We shouldn’t apply laws that were written in the ‘30s or the ‘70s and expect that to work in the 21st century…It’s going to be quite a while until the industry is ready for retail consumers.”
Despite the hard road ahead, cryptocurrency experts are generally optimistic about the approach outlined in Tuesday’s congressional hearing. “It’s always exciting to have regulators come out with a positive outlook on this technology,” Elizabeth Rossiello, founder and CEO of the Nairobi-based blockchain startup BitPesa, told IBT. “It influences regulators around the world…I was recently at Davos [ World Economic Forum ] introducing regulators from my [African] jurisdictions to other regulators, sharing the progress that has been made.”
Incredible to meet @UNCTADKituyi and share @BitPesa's success in Africa with Kenyan Minister of ICT @mucheru and Energy @ketercharles at the Global Blockchain Business Council @GBBCouncil meeting in @Davos. Important discussions on power of transparent regulation for innovation! pic.twitter.com/3RGg2dku9U
— Elizabeth Rossiello (@e_rossiello) January 24, 2018
The World Bank ran a blockchain-pilot program for Kenyan bonds in 2017, while Japan and Singapore passed crypto-friendly legislation. The United Kingdom’s central bank is also busy exploring cryptocurrency’s potential use cases. American lawmakers may be late to the game, yet have so much to gain from the blockchain industry. “We’re seeing, one by one, the map turn green,” Rossiello said. “It takes some time for regulators.”
For now, cryptocurrency is still extremely risky. Regardless, incumbent tech companies keep flocking to the cryptocurrency boom. Telegram, makers of the messaging app with 180 million users, is planning a $2 billion ICO this year. Many experts are cautious about such ventures. All cryptocurrencies are not created equal. It takes a high level of technical expertise to find the rare, promising initiatives. “We are still in the very early days of the industry. Buyers beware,” Boring said. “If you don’t understand what you are buying, you should not buy it.”
Editor’s note: This is not investment advice. Any following statements are not legal pronouncements or endorsements regarding any specific technology. This article is merely an illustrative reflection of the opinions expressed by interviewed experts.