The internet is what it is today—with its ability to connect people across countries, time zones, and cultures—thanks to the friendly regulatory climate it was born into. Sadly, the regulatory climate of 2021 is far less welcoming to disruptive technologies. This is bad news for the future of U.S. innovation and the emerging blockchain industry.
Whether Washington takes a heavy-handed or a light-touch approach to crypto regulation over the next few months could make a multitrillion-dollar difference over the next few years. To understand how much we stand to lose as a result of bad blockchain policy, it’s first important to understand just how much we have gained as a result of good internet policy in the ’90s.
It’s easy to forget that the success of today’s internet behemoths was anything but certain in the early years of the tech boom. During the Dotcom Bubble of the late ’90s, for example, many companies were dismissed as scams (and some of them were). But even the most promising companies were still seen as speculative bets, and their stock prices were subject to extreme volatility.
It’s also easy to forget that the very concept of the internet was foreign to most people in its early years. By today’s standards, it was slow, overly complex, and difficult to use by anyone without a strong technical background. Many dismissed the internet as a fad, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who made this prediction in 1998: “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
“A scam,” “a fad,” “a bubble,” “overly complex,” “too volatile.” Does any of this sound familiar? History doesn’t rhyme so much as it plagiarizes. And it’s impossible to ignore that the crypto skeptics of today use the same vocabulary as the internet naysayers of yesteryear.
Now imagine if U.S. policymakers had heeded the words of the internet’s critics in the mid-to-late ’90s. Imagine if they had cracked down on e-commerce, digital publishing, and fledgling social media platforms to preserve the old way of doing things. Imagine if they had shaped regulations to stem the free flow of physical goods, ideas, and information made possible by the internet.
The American people would have missed out on trillions of dollars in economic opportunity—and the bounties of the digital age would have gone to countries with more tech-friendly policies.
This is the risk we face today.
We find ourselves at the dawn of a new age of American innovation. Like the internet before it, crypto has the potential to redefine everything we know about how business, politics, media, finance, and even relationships work. But if legislators give in to crypto’s critics by taking a draconian approach to regulation, the U.S. will fail to reap the economic rewards of this world-changing technology—and entrepreneurs will flee to friendlier shores.
Even now, the stage is being set for a blockchain brain drain. Take the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, which includes a provision that would define crypto miners, validators, and even software developers as “brokers,” requiring them to report information to the IRS about anonymous blockchain participants that they would have no way of obtaining. In effect, this provision would kill the nascent DeFi (decentralized finance) industry and make it almost impossible for everyday Americans to invest in new cryptocurrencies. In other words, this latest move sends a hostile message to blockchain advocates: “We don’t want you here.”
At best, the Senate proposal belies a gross misunderstanding of how cryptocurrencies work; at worst, it exposes regulatory capture and the willingness of legislators to give in to special interests.
Sadly, the threat of bad regulation doesn’t end there. SEC Chair Gary GenslerGary GenslerRegulators must act to protect financial system from climate risk: report SEC probing Wall Street banks’ documentation of digital employee communication: report Protecting consumers requires protecting and incentivizing whistleblowers, too MORE has expressed his belief that many digital assets are not commodities but securities and should be regulated as such. Following this same logic, he’s signaled his intent to crack down on the use of stable coins—cryptocurrencies pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. Americans are using stable coins to earn 4 to 8 percent APY on their savings through various lending programs. But the SEC wants to put a stop to these lending programs, ostensibly “to protect investors.” (What’s unclear is which government agency will protect investors from the unlimited money printing that is devaluing their dollar savings at a rate of 5.3 percent per year.)
Washington has gotten off on the wrong foot when it comes to crypto. But it’s not too late to correct course.
Regulation of crypto is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a key step on the path to mainstream adoption. It’s critical, however, that policymakers shape regulation in a way that minimizes the risks of this new technology without eliminating its benefits. Congress found a way to do this with the internet in the ’90s. Section 230—while far from perfect and in need of reform today—paved the way for a flexible regulatory environment that allowed for many online companies to thrive. In the famous words of Jeff Kosseff, Section 230 contains “the 26 words that created the internet” (and, it’s worth adding, “trillions of dollars in economic wealth”).
Indeed, regulatory clarity is key to extracting maximum value from the emerging crypto economy, whether that value comes from DeFi protocols, decentralized forms of social media, tokenized assets, NFTs, or some other application of blockchain technology that we can’t even imagine today.
As policymakers seek to find the right balance on regulation, they should remember that the U.S. didn’t become the tech capital of the world by choking innovators with red tape. The U.S. became what it is today by taking a prudential approach to regulation—one that enabled the entrepreneurial spirit.
This is the same entrepreneurial spirit that inspired the private sector technological advances that made the Apollo moon landing possible. It’s the same spirit that brought about smartphones millions of times more powerful than the Apollo 11 guidance computers. And it’s the same spirit that has motivated a group of visionaries to push the boundaries of the digital frontier through blockchain technology.
Will Washington’s leaders stifle that spirit to the detriment of our economy and our reputation as a global leader in innovation? Or will they nourish that spirit to usher in the next chapter of the digital revolution?
Let’s hope they choose the latter.
Matt Sandgren is the former staff director of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force. A 15-year veteran of Capitol Hill, he also served as a senior counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee and as the final chief of staff to Senator Orrin G. Hatch. He is now the executive director of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.