Blockchain technology is set to drive a new era of global public policy competition. In May 2018, the premier of Bermuda, David Burt, announced to the 8,500 attendees of the Consensus blockchain and cryptocurrency conference his country’s new Digital Asset Business Act and Initial Coin Offering Act. This legislation is intended to establish Bermuda as a premier destination for blockchain business by providing regulatory certainty around new business models.
But Bermuda is hardly the only jurisdiction seeking to attract blockchain firms. Singapore, Switzerland, Dubai, Estonia, subnational jurisdictions and dependencies like Illinois, Zug, the Isle of Man and Gibraltar are all positioning themselves to capture blockchain services. In October 2017, the then prime minister of Slovenia, Miro Cera, declared the country was “setting itself up as a blockchain-friendly destination.”
What we are seeing right now is an aggressive policy-driven grab to become a world leader in blockchain technology, and to capture some of the enormous value that this can unlock. Where once we saw global tax competition – as small nations attracted investment with business-friendly tax and regulation policy – now we are able to watch the green shoots of global blockchain competition. Blockchains are a unique technology, and that uniqueness presents some unusual public policy challenges. They offer us a new platform to organize economic activity: to make trades, to arrange production processes, to store information about assets and property ownership. Blockchains provide an economic infrastructure on which parallel technological developments, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Internet of Things, 5G, and automation, can be built.
We expect to see a great deal of economic activity that currently takes place in firms, in markets, even in government, to be displaced by distributed ledger technology. Blockchains will tie organizations together that have currently cooperated only through market exchange, or by the force of regulation. It will lead to demergers, as large firms realize that a decentralized ledger is an alternative to complex multidivisional corporate structures.
But we have spent hundreds of years building complex taxation and regulatory systems around these institutions. The dominance of large firms has led governments to impose anti-trust laws. Principal-agent problems between owners and firm managers has led to the introduction of complex schemes of directors duties and manager controls. Securities law is built around the dominance of the public offering, taxation law around a sharp distinction between currency and other assets, and labor law around the employer-employee divide.
As a new technology of governing economic activity, blockchain applications pull at the threads of all these traditional regulatory frameworks. Globally, there are still deep uncertainties over the most basic questions around cryptocurrencies, such as when they are taxed, and as what: currency or security? The initial coin offerings that have brought so much money into the industry exist in a legal gray area almost everywhere in the world.
Blockchains are an incredibly young technology – just ten years old. Distributed autonomous organizations, decentralized labor markets, blockchain-secured intellectual property assets and blockchain-enhanced international trade will raise complex issues about fundamental regulatory structures, like labor, competition, and companies law – structures which have been reasonably fixed for the better part of a century. As more applications around economic problems, such as identity management, charities, healthcare, finance and global trade, are developed and introduced into the real world, they will face a spiraling number of regulatory and policy barriers that will need to be overcome. We face decades of regulatory uncertainty and demand for reform.
This is where crypto-friendliness matters. Crypto-friendliness does not mean the government needs to subsidize, plan or control blockchain technology. The sector is awash with funds: a happy by-product of the enormous speculative investment in cryptocurrencies that has occurred over the last eighteen months. No government planner could predict how this technology is going to develop, and given its global nature, no regulator has a hope of controlling it.
But blockchains do require governments to facilitate adoption. Because of the many ways blockchain use cases interact with existing regulatory frameworks they will need the help – or at least the acquiescence – of public policymakers to reform those frameworks to suit. The biggest regulatory risk in the blockchain space is uncertainty. Right now, those uncertainties are about how crypto-assets will be taxed, how and when they will be treated as securities, and the levels of disclosure around anti-money laundering and know-your-customer rules.
Governments that want to attract blockchain firms to their jurisdictions need to be resolving those uncertainties as soon as possible.
A crypto-friendly government is one which is not only focused on resolving current uncertainties but is able to credibly commit to facilitating the sorts of regulatory reforms needed in the future. Technological change is unpredictable. We do not know what blockchain applications are going to be the most successful and disruptive. Consumer demand is unpredictable. Governments should ensure, as far as possible, that regulation is both predictable and adaptive, that shape-changes in regulatory regimes do not occur, and that yet there is adequate space for entrepreneurial experimentation.
Which governments are likely to be the most crypto-friendly? At the first instance, the governments which have already demonstrated themselves as business-friendly environments are obvious candidates for blockchain friendliness. The ingredients of long-run economic growth – liberal, responsive institutions, the rule of law, limited government, regulatory modesty, and low taxes – are as important for blockchain firms as they are for other industries. The Isle of Man, for instance, has long been an established global leader in gambling and e-gaming, thanks to a deliberate effort on its part to establish welcoming and certain public policy. The Isle of Man is now a thriving site of blockchain innovation. As this suggests, blockchain technology presents a historically significant opportunity for the Cayman Islands, and any other jurisdiction which has a reputation for business-friendly policy. The last few decades of global tax competition have shown that smart policy can shape the geography of global capitalism just as strongly as labor or natural resources. Blockchains are a decentralized network but their developers, entrepreneurs and users exist in a real world, subject to real laws. Crypto-havens can capture that business.
Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts are with the RMIT University’s Blockchain Innovation Hub in Melbourne, Australia.