Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The “Bitlicense” is A Bad Idea That Must Die

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Bitcoin is a distributed ledger system, maintained by a network of peers that monitors and regulates which entries are allocated to what Bitcoin addresses. This is done entirely by transmitting messages that are text, between the nodes in the network, where cryptographic procedures are executed on these messages in text to verify their authenticity and the identity of the sender and recipient of the message and their position in the public ledger. The messages sent between nodes in the Bitcoin network are human readable, and printable. There is no point in any Bitcoin transaction that Bitcoin ceases to be text. It is all text, all the time.

Bitcoin can be printed out onto sheets of paper. This output can take different forms, like machine readable QR Codes, or it can be printed out in the letters A to Z, a to z and 0 to 9. This means they can be read by a human being, just like “Huckleberry Finn”.


Bitcoins are accepted in this café in the Netherlands as of 2013
 
At the time of the creation of the United States of America, the Founding Fathers of that new country in their deep wisdom and distaste for tyranny, haunted by the memory of the absence of a free press in the countries from which they escaped, wrote into the basic law of that then young federation of free states, an explicit and unambiguous freedom, the “Freedom of the Press”. This amendment was first because of its central importance to a free society. The First Amendment guarantees that all Americans have the power to exercise their right to publish and distribute anything they like, without restriction or prior restraint.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This single line, forever precludes any law that restricts Bitcoin in any way.


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If any legislator, regulator, three or six letter US agency or other bored bureaucrat busybody dares to try and regulate Bitcoin, they will be on a hiding to nothing. A legal challenge will be mounted, and will have to be mounted, because if the State can legislate against a single piece of software that generates messages, a legal precedent will be created allowing the US government to regulate all software no matter what it does.

Bitcoin’s operation is fundamentally no different to what all email, text messaging and internet connected software does; relay messages. The only difference is in the software that tracks how the messages of the sender and recipient relate to each other. Email is no different to Bitcoin, save for the fact that a record of the sender and recipient and content of your email is not stored in a public ledger one against the other. We know its stored in a private database, but that’s another story. Wink wink.

Allowing legislation to touch Bitcoin means that any software of any kind will suddenly be liable to arbitrary and unethical restriction. It will set a precedent that will be highly damaging to all software development in the USA.

Twitter for example, could find itself being regulated; it transmits messages that are no different in nature to the messages that Bitcoin transmits; the only difference being the publicly maintained ledger and application of the messages. In fact, twitter could turn itself into a Bitcoin company quite easily by adding a few fields to its message JSON schema to include a bitcoin address for each of its users, adding a page to its client and running its own Bitcoin server pool. Would that extra text suddenly transform Twitter into a different company? Would that suddenly change the nature of each Tweet that is sent on their network? How is having a Bitcoin address integrated into your Twitter account different to making a promise by hand on Twitter to your followers or in a direct message?


Essentially, Bitcoin allows you to make contracts with people without knowing them or signing paper; the network and software takes care of identifying and fulfilling the promise, all with cryptographically signed pieces of text. What the people calling for “Bitlicenses” are asserting is that because Bitcoin right now has a particular use, it should be exempted from the basic law of the United States of America. That is completely insane, and will have unintended consequences that would be absolutely disastrous for the American economy since almost everything today is mediated by or touches software.

On the other hand, if Bitcoin is left to flourish and the market allowed to define the services and means of setting the value and resolving disputes, Bitcoin as an ecosystem will be extremely robust and widespread, just like the internet is today, after having grown for twenty years without any regulation or oversight from the State.

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The United States looks set to cripple itself by enacting “Bitlicenses” and declaring by fiat that Bitcoin is a currency, or a commodity or legal tender. As I describe above, Bitcoin is none of those things by nature, and the myriad number of applications it can be put to is only just being discovered.

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The best the State can possibly hope for is to tax new businesses that use the new tools as they emerge, and encourage entrepreneurs to incorporate in their jurisdictions. If America wants to drive away Bitcoin developers, exchanges and new businesses fine; there are plenty of other places in the world where fast internet pipes have been laid and where the government is not so backward. Skype was founded in Estonia, not Silicon Valley, and this is for a reason. All the big Bitcoin exchanges are outside of the USA. There is a reason for that. No one wanting to start a Bitcoin business is planning to move to New York from anywhere, because they know that their business models will immediately come under attack.

For those of you who are frightened of a free market in Bitcoin, rest assured, all the laws that currently exist to do with fraud, theft, misrepresentation and everything else, continue apply to all people and corporations who use Bitcoin. Bitcoin does not make laws or your personal or corporate obligations moot. When you deal with a company, you retain access to the law and recourse to it. When someone makes a promise to sell you goods with Bitcoin, that promise is not nullified because you are paying with Bitcoin.
Good Bitcoin businesses will build dispute resolution systems the way that eBay and Amazon have, so that you never have to go to court to obtain justice if there is a problem. Online, reputation is everything, and bad reputations can destroy your credibility and customer bas over night. This is a far more powerful incentive to do right, which most people do by default in any case, than some arbitrary “Bitlicense”.

All the “Bitlicenses” in the world could not stop MTGOX from having a software problem, and no law can bring back the money lost either directly or through the disruption the event caused by the software error. Once again, entrepreneurs powered by the internet make life easier and better, not laws and regulations. Regulation does not make software correct; developers do.

I have one recommendation for anyone advocating that there should be a “Bitlicense”. Don’t waste everyone’s time and money and resources knocking down this stupid idea. The EFF has better things to do with their time than teach the PGP “Munitions Case” lesson all over again. If it goes to court, your side will lose, and as a consequence, America will lose its head start as all Bitcoin entrepreneurs flee the USA for environments that will allow them to innovate, grow and prosper.

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