The Emerging Bitcoin Civil War

bitcoin civil warA civil war is emerging between Bitcoin’s earliest and most libertarian adopters, and a more commercial wing seeking to embrace regulation as a means of legitimizing Bitcoin businesses.

The divide came into focus this week with two key events events. One was a hearing on Bitcoin regulation by the New York Department Of Financial Services. The other was the arrest of BitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem on money laundering charges.

Until the moment of his arrest, Shrem, 24 had been something of a darling in the Bitcoin venture capital community — the Winklevoss brothers were one of BitInstant’s earliest investors, and Shrem was scheduled to co-headline a Bitcoin conference in Miami this past weekend.

But on the first day of hearings about the future of Bitcoin regulation convened this week by the New York Department of Financial Services, a panel of VCs were quick to disavow Shrem as an example of a more immature wing of Bitcoin. The Winklevoss twins said they were gratified the Department was discussing ways to help legitimize Bitcoin commerce. Their Bitcoin ETF is awaiting regulatory approval from the SEC.

The division is not just about sheer dollar size. Appearing at the Tuesday hearing, Fred Wilson — whose Union Square Ventures spearheaded a $5 million investment round in Bitcoin wallet firm Coinbase warned against anything but the lightest-touch regulations. He compared the dangers Bitcoin startups would face to what happened to early-stage music streaming platforms, which were inundated with lawsuits from record labels. Should Bitcoin startups be subject to similar legal scrutiny from financial regulators, he said, they would be snuffed out before they even had a chance to bloom.

Wilson’s views were countered by no other than Fred Ehrsam, Coinbase’s co-founder. He told DFS regulators Wednesday, “Although I love Fred Wilson, there’s probably some minimal requirements and procedures that should be put in place if you’re facilitating that kind of exchange.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that this ultra-libertarian faction was not represented at this week’s hearings.

But it could be seen at the NYC Bitcoin Center on Broad Street in Manhattan — where a follow-up cocktail party was held Tuesday to discuss “fallout” from the first day’s hearing — and online, where this faction railed from afar against regulators.

bitcoin regulation tweetsThese individuals may seem extreme, but, until recently, they represented the core of Bitcoin evangelism.

But their influence seems to be fading. Barry Silbert’s Bitcoin Investment Trust is now worth 10s of millions of dollars. In an email Wednesday, he said he agreed the crypto-anarchists who dominated the digital currencies earliest incarnations were getting left behind.

“There are certainly a handful of folks that are hardcore libertarians (some anarchists) that believe that bitcoin should be completely unregulated, but I believe they are in the minority and, as a percentage of bitcoin believers, is shrinking very quickly.  I respect their viewpoint, but unfortunately, don’t see how there vision is viable in today’s society.”

On Wednesday, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said the greatest concern about digital currencies among law enforcement was anonymity. In a Bitcoin transaction, all transactions are essentially conducted between e-addresses that lack any kind of user identification.

“The difficulty, when criminal activity is involved, is for investigators to identity how the money is moved where and for what purpose.,” he said.

But tinkering with Bitcoin’s anonymity would seem to strike at the heart of another one of Bitcoin’s core elements — as seen in the following Tweet:

bitcoin regulation tweets

But Jeremy Allaire, founder and CEO of Circle, a company that develops digital currency products, showed little concern that regulators could start scraping away at Bitcoin’s anonymity element. Asked Tuesday on the panel whether new regulations affecting Bitcoin’s anonymity would undermine the popularity of the currency, Allaire replied, “That depends on your definition of the essence of Bitcoin.”

As Bitcoin continues to emerge, this fight over Bitcoin’s essence, and how much of a role government should play, will only get more intense.

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