As Silk Road 2.0 Pops Up, The Government Needs To Avoid The Temptation Of Moral Panic

from the moral-panic-a-coming dept

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled about the supposed launch of Silk Road 2.0, a near copy of the original infamous Silk Road "dark web" shopping site for all sorts of illegal things. But, perhaps more interesting is how Congress suddenly feels the need to jump in and try to understand the dark web and things like Bitcoin:
The Senate Homeland Security Committee, officials tell TIME, plans on holding hearings on Bitcoin within the month. The committee sent letters to nine federal agencies in July asking for their thoughts on Bitcoins and other virtual currencies in the hopes of developing a holistic approach to the so-called cryptocurrency that neither stifles the currency’s potential nor enables criminals to abuse it.
This should be cause for concern. After all, it wasn't that long ago, that Senator Chuck Schumer absolutely flipped his lid about Bitcoin, claiming that Bitcoin itself was "money laundering" after some of the first news stories about the original Silk Road came out. The fact that he so immediately conflated the dark web with Bitcoin should be problematic already -- though, one hopes that he's since learned some more about Bitcoin and has realized his original statements were exaggerated.

Of course, any time Congress gets involved, especially with the kind of story that can be portrayed the way Silk Road has been portrayed, you almost expect the moral panic and grandstanding to reach a fever pitch. The one (minor) good sign in all of this is that the Senator who is putting together that hearing on Bitcoin, Tom Carper, seems to be going out of his way to make it clear that he isn't looking to have a kneejerk reaction to all of this -- especially if it might stifle important innovations. After news broke of the new Silk Road, he was quick to put out the following statement:
“This new website – launched barely a month after Federal agents shut down the original Silk Road -- underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly. Rather than play ‘whack-a-mole’ with the latest website, currency, or other method criminals are using in an effort to evade the law, we need to develop thoughtful, nimble and sensible federal policies that protect the public without stifling innovation and economic growth. Our committee intends to have that conversation – among others - at our hearing this month on virtual currency.”
That's a whole hell of a lot better than Schumer's "it's money laundering!" grandstanding from two years ago -- but that doesn't mean that others in Congress will be as willing as Carper to take a careful, measured and informed approach to all of this. While it sounds good to create policies that "protect the public without stifling innovation and economic growth," in practice that's often a lot more difficult than most people think -- and Congress often has an uncanny ability to say one thing and put in place policies that do the exact opposite.

While some people like to mock concepts like the dark web and Bitcoin, there's a tremendous amount of important innovation happening within and around each of them. While they may initially be used, in part, for illegal activity, that's going to become less and less of the predominant use, and all sorts of powerful new tools and services are likely to develop -- if allowed. Bitcoin, in particular, has many powerful uses beyond just being a currency (in fact, that may be one of its least interesting characteristics), but overly regulating it based on moral panics might kill that off. I already know a few entrepreneurs and investors who are unwilling to commit to some really interesting Bitcoin projects, just because they know the regulatory situation might destroy the space overnight. Hopefully, Congress will avoid that temptation to go on a full out moral panic -- but their track record with these kinds of things isn't that great.

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  1. icon
    John85851 (profile), 8 Nov 2013 @ 3:12pm

    Legalize and tax it

    Here's a radical idea: legalize it, but tax it to death.
    How many people will shop at the Silk Road simply because it's illegal and the government tells them not to?
    How many people will shop at the Silk Road when they realize they have to pay a 60% sales tax? The vendors selling there can lower the prices all they want, but customers won't want to pay the high sales tax... and look what happens: the government kills the business without making anything illegal.

    It's like the argument for legalizing marijuana: the government gets income from taxes, it doesn't have to spend money on arresting people and moving them through the criminal justice system, and it can regulate quality.
    This happened with Prohibition in the 1920's, so why can't the government learn from it?

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