The advent of the public internet originally held great promise. As with the adoption of tools like horses, railroads, or telephones, the internet made the world smaller and revitalized the spirit of universal connection for a new generation. New technologies made it possible for individuals to harness a democratizing wave of innovation.
Unfortunately, this spirit has acquiesced under the weight of corporate interests.
The rollback of net neutrality doesn't just mean internet service providers can control the speed of internet content. It means that they can potentially control the flow of digital information, favoring content that aligns with their corporate interests and steering people's opinions over time by regulating how fast content of one type or another gets delivered.
Regardless of any Federal Communication Commission justification, the rollback of net neutrality creates a dangerous paradigm where the legal barrier that kept ISPs from controlling content through the speed of its delivery is removed.
The promise of a new and better decentralized internet, created by the public for the public, is perhaps the best hope for salvaging the original ideas embodied by the internet. This is the story of Coin Center, and the efforts by two of its members to help those in the halls of power understand what's at stake when trying to create policies that will govern the evolving future of online freedoms.
A Crypto Place To Defend The Cryptospace
Jerry Brito is the executive director of Coin Center, and he knows a thing or two about cryptocurrencies. After a decade at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, where he started and directed the technology policy program, Brito discovered bitcoin and it changed his life.
Jerry Brito: "Before Coin Center I was at the Mercatus Center. We focused on the costs and benefits of regulating technology broadly. This included everything, from old-school telecom privacy and copyright issues, and then, increasingly, it became about emerging technology issues around 3D-printers, drones, the sharing economy, and also cryptocurrency."
While at Mercatus, Brito heard about bitcoin in 2011 via a podcast, and immediately knew it would change everything.
JB: "I saw the elegance of it, and I said to myself, 'This is what I've been waiting for my whole life.' I also saw that there were so many regulatory implications. I started asking folks around DC if they'd heard about this thing called 'bitcoin.' Nobody really had yet. The few people that did know, described it as 'that drug money thing.' So I started writing about it.
"At the time, I had a regular column for TIME. I actually wrote the first mainstream article about bitcoin, and the price doubled, from like fifty cents to a dollar, after I wrote it. It's funny looking back, people on bitcoin forums were like 'This is it, it's happening!'"
Brito redoubled his writing and advocacy efforts at that time, trying to prime policymakers for what he knew would be an eventual regulation showdown. When the US government began to take note of bitcoin in 2012-2013, Brito was the guy in DC who knew all about it.
JB: "I was very lucky to be in position already when activity picked up. There was a taskforce that was created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and Reuters, to look at the illicit use of cryptocurrency, and I was asked to be on that taskforce."
Following his involvement with the NCMEC task force, Brito took part in congressional hearings that were the result of a 2013 bitcoin investigation by the Senate Homeland Security Committee. These were the first high-profile Senate hearings on bitcoin.
JB: "I … testified in November. The outcome was great. They understood that there are some illicit uses [of cryptocurrency] – like with all new technologies – but they generally thought cryptocurrency was really innovative and great. So that was awesome, I was really happy; and then a couple months later Charlie Sherm got busted, and right after that Mt. Gox happened."
The government scrutiny that followed was enormous, and there weren't many places policymakers could turn for information. Compounding the lack of advocacy, when a member of Congress or a federal agency wanted to pick up the phone and "call bitcoin," there was nobody on the other end of the line to answer.
JB: "There was an unfulfilled need. I was already spending 39 hours a week at Mercatus working on bitcoin. I saw the need for a full-time organization. A bunch of people who that had that same vision came together, and we started Coin Center."
The Law of the Horse
As its director of research, Peter Van Valkenburgh is responsible for keeping Coin Center's cutting-edge expertise razor-sharp. Indeed, Valkenburgh has had his finger on the pulse of the regulatory intersection between blockchain and the technological status-quo for years already.
PV: "I think there are some people in Washington who understand that this technology is really about a decentralized internet revolution. There are people in all sorts of agencies tasked with being the blockchain person, or the cryptocurrency person … We are there to help them understand it better, as it is happening, and walk them through it.
"Some do resist, though. They don't want to internalize how this technology could replicate their function, or the functions of their business or organization. In some cases, the best answer we can give is that to be most effective in your particular position, you need to accept this as a new reality and work with it, rather than fighting what's changing."
Convincing the powers that be of the merits of the decentralized blockchain revolution isn't easy, especially when it comes to cryptocurrency. The various arms of government all jealously guard their own regulatory jurisdictions against each other. The idea that you can get them all in a room, and hash out the future of cryptocurrency, is not how advocacy in the capital works.
PV: "The way it works, is someone like the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issues guidance on money laundering, and the states … say, 'Okay, this is about money transmission,' and things like that can lead to the creation and issuance of a BitLicense."
Although the regulatory saber-rattling in Washington might seem an inefficient means of creating policy, Valkenburgh, who holds a doctorate of jurisprudence from NYU Law School and was a 2013 Google Policy Fellow, believes this seemingly uncoordinated dance, with different definitions and points of view, to be in the highest tradition of American law.
PV: "Could you get collaboration between federal agencies? That would be very hard, and probably not. But the real question is, do you want overarching collaboration? This gets into an interesting, almost 'philosophy of law'-perspective. Judge Easterbrook, of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote a great article about the internet back in the 90s called "Cyberspace and the Law of the Horse." What Easterbrook said, was [that] horses, and horse-drawn carriages and buggies, are a technology that emerged and had unique issues for the law. But there is no 'law of the horse,' and there shouldn't be a law of the internet."
Indeed, things like privacy, contracts, or property (digital or physical), all exist in our world already, regardless of how technology changes them. When you try to build a comprehensive, overarching legal structure to govern evolving technologies, the possibility of misjudging the technology can increase exponentially. "You end up writing the law too early," Valkenburgh emphasized, "and screw up all of the issues you were trying to address to begin with."
One of the best examples of regulation too soon is called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). This law, passed in the early 80s, was supposed to deal with electronic privacy. The United States doesn't have an overarching privacy law; rather, there is a cluster of common law that protects US citizens against the invasion of privacy. There is also the Fourth Amendment, which ensures our right to privacy against the government. The ECPA however, was the first time the legislature passed an omnibus privacy law.
PV: "[The ECPA] was all about electronic privacy. Back then, people were literally worried about someone splicing a telephone line and connecting a listening device to it: basically, wiretapping. Eventually, they were worried about things like computer processing of data, which back then was basically showing up to a warehouse with a bunch of computer hard drives in your trunk and asking to have the hard drives processed: can the data processing center actually keep copies of that data?
"So, the law was built to be comprehensive. People probably really wanted it at the time, and thought it would give them better privacy online, but it was built with an archaic understanding of how the technology was evolving. The tech rapidly outpaced the law, and the law quickly became antiquated.
"This is why if you leave your emails unopened, you have privacy rights to them under ECPA. But if you open your emails and they stay in your inbox for thirty days, you are no longer protected. The law was written when you had AOL and the like. You'd dial in, download your emails, and then log off immediately. So your emails were no longer on a server. It was a world before the cloud. You'd have privacy for that small time, but if you left them there longer, you wouldn't."
The lessons learned from the ECPA are a constant reminder to Valkenburgh that if cryptocurrency is regulated too soon, or too broadly, the law can get it wrong. Technology will be vastly different in a few years' time, and there is a danger that precipitating events could spur regulation to create a tech-specific law, rather than gradually applying established legal concepts like privacy, or security, to new technologies in a progressive manner. "We, the US," stipulated Valkenburgh, "we don't ban technology; we find ways to protect our citizens by enabling free expression and innovation."
The Good Fight
As the candle of hope for a free and public internet begins to flicker in the winds of corporate takeover, Coin Center represents a vanguard for securing the freedoms of the next evolution of the internet. Like outdated laws of yesteryear, the monopolistic influence of big business will hopefully fade into history with the dawn of decentralization.
It is true that the internet will likely always have businesses on it. But it is important to remember that for all the corporate-controlled infrastructure, the internet is also just a bunch of servers, some that are run by hobbyists or regular people. That is actually how people built most public infrastructure, like roads or waterworks.
Valkenburgh underlined this public and civic-minded aspect of future decentralized growth. "The goal is to have nodes, and stakes, and miners, who are just out there because they believe that they are going to help provide public infrastructure that opens up the world to censorship-resistant and privacy-protecting payments."
Brito concluded, "I think the goal of Coin Center is to make sure that there is always space for people to build these tools, so that you can create the possibility of a better world. To make sure that there's always space for things to be developed, because it's your right to be able to do that. The other thing I'd say, is I think the best way to make a social impact is not voting, it's not lobbying – it is building these tools. That's how you make a social impact in the 21st century."