Cryptoassets: Regulation — [Christina Rees in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:36 am on 7th September 2022.

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Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader) 9:36 am, 7th September 2022

I do not disagree, but I will talk later about the reality of the existing regulation and how we should lead best practice.

It is important that regulation is able to make a clear delineation of where the legitimate business exists and outright scam cannot. Despite the halving of the value of Bitcoin since its peak in November, it remains at a price much higher than it held a few years ago. Although many will argue over the inherent value of crypto, the market remains remarkably buoyant, despite all that has happened.

Many of the challenges begin with the merest definitions involved in the whole business. As I said, I hate acronyms. All the DLTs, NFTs and CBDCs are confusing enough before we even get to the question of what crypto actually is. Is it an asset? Is it a technology? Is it an idea?

Another enduring problem of crypto, encapsulated in that Larry David advert, is its novelty: the idea that we have a genuinely world-changing thing before us. That idea falls apart immediately as it comes into contact with the real world. As an asset class, it has proven to be resilient neither to inflation nor to external shocks, never mind the fact that conventional and centrally regulated currencies have continued to attract a far larger interest as a holder of value in straitened economic times.

It has been difficult to keep up with the pretence of some of the more outlandish claims about the technology’s potential, as they struggle with the evidence of the past few years. International bank transfers, for example, are still cheaper, when taking into account the need to convert crypto into fiat currency. There remains a massive legitimacy problem given that the post-truth aspects of blockchain technology struggle when put beside existing institutions.

Even the idea of a decentralised and therefore more equitable structure has struggled against the demonstrable fact that so many cryptoassets remain in the hands of so-called whales—the few at the top who managed to get their timing right or to be there when the currency started. Far from being a novelty, the lived experience of the crypto bubble has reinforced the fact that there truly is nothing new under the sun. While so much of it remains a new arrangement of an old song, we hear riffs that echo debates that are being had outwith the crypto bubble; debates that have resonance in the fields of economics, sociology or computer science.

Solutionism is the idea that there is a clever, technological answer for all of life’s problems and that, somehow, human nature can be overridden with the application of the requisite solution. Crypto fits squarely in that space. One wag called it a solution in need of a problem, and a whole range of problems have been hastily set up to be solved by it. As we will see, that gets entirely in the way of the more durable and sustainable uses that it has.

Principal among those is the way in which many adherents seem to revel in the way that crypto offers the opportunity to turn the current logic of most of the internet on its head. The current logic is that we are offered free services in exchange for access to our metadata. Instead, this bold new vision goes, we should—or could—monetise these fractional shares of data, which we give back to, say, Facebook or Google. The value of popular tweets that we make could be released, as could that of those Instagram posts that have been gathering likes but no dollars. There is obviously not the same value to be released for everyone, especially a boring auld guy like me. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friends. There is a lot of doubt about how much that value would ever amount to, but the principal argument against this sort of future for crypto is that it adumbrates a dypstopia where every single aspect of our lives that could be monetised can be and where our maximum productivity can be released.

For many, including some in the House of Commons, that is the final step on the way to a new liberal utopia, where we know the price of everything, although the cynic in me thinks that we will miss out on the value of quite a lot. Given the way social media has descended into something of a mess, catering to what seems like a mixture of our lowest common denominator and our basest desires, I am not sure that giving human beings the ability to monetise absolutely everything creates a positive incentive.

This idea makes the assumption not only that the technology is the most efficient way to solve these problems, but that it is the most efficient version of itself. In speaking to those who have worked on the technical side of the crypto industry, it is remarkable how imperfect the technology itself is, mainly because it has humans involved in its creation. To take one example, coders make errors in one out of every 10 expressions, or every three lines of codes—code that is, of course, written in a way that reflects the biases of the person writing it.

In cryptocurrencies that seek to use the technology to incorporate smart contracts, and therefore programming languages, that opens up a whole range of exploits, with systems not working as they should and money being vulnerable to theft. According to one estimate, 5% of all decentralised finance—or DeFi—funds are lost in that way, which is especially problematic when most of those funds are uninsured.

The technical issues are dwarfed by the environmental impact of crypto, which is a truly vast problem that threatens to undo all the good that it could bring. Essentially, the technology inherent in most forms of crypto—nodes competing to solve puzzles to access coins—creates the incentive to use increasingly large, expensive and energy-intensive servers. Not only does that consume vast amounts of electricity—the equivalent of the annual energy use of Argentina, accordingly to legend—but it creates another brick in the wall of a crypto oligarchy, with the largest investors able to control far more of the servers and thus far more of whatever cryptocurrency is held there.

There are certainly workarounds, and I hope to explore some of that in my speech, but as we stand here today, looking at the landscape, it is not only another challenge that cryptocurrency advocates need to overcome but, added together with the other questions I have laid out, it becomes something more significant that needs to be addressed if they want crypto to become part of their daily lives.

Before I am accused of being too much of a negative Nancy, it is important to understand exactly where we are at the moment, because only by doing that can we better understand the potential for blockchain technology. Then we can focus better on the regulation that we need to bring in to ensure that it thrives. My biggest fear is that bringing in regulation means changing so much of the culture in the industry, and dialling down so many of the solutionist expectations of its adherents, that it may not be possible, but I am going to give it a shot.

It will be difficult to push back so much of interest that has been created in the crypto community and it is important to understand what is motivating these investors, many of whom are young or from non-traditional finance backgrounds, especially as we stare down the barrel of a cost of living crisis and the inevitable recession that will follow. Blockchain’s genesis, following the 2008 financial crisis, is central to this.

The possibilities for demystifying finance, and for allowing normal investors access to resources usually only available to those able to access corporate lawyers, is certainly within reach, if the capabilities of so-called distributed autonomous organisations—or DAOs—are realised, not only as an add-on for existing companies, businesses and commercial practices, but as a way of creating a new type of entity that can avoid the pitfalls of oligopolistic capitalism.

Blockchain’s birth as something of a libertarian project has obscured the incredible potential for the technology to improve government efficiency, clamp down on tax avoidance and increase accountability for those in public life. The best existing example of that can be found in the Republic of Estonia; I should probably add that I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Estonia. Estonia began a roll-out of blockchain in its governmental processes from the Ministry of Finance, and in doing so made all other Ministries reliant on the technology themselves and ensured that one of the central pillars of the social contract—the relationship between the taxpayer and the Government—was radically accountable.

As things stand, the necessarily slow pace of regulation means there is every incentive for individuals to stay a couple of steps ahead of regulation, exploiting loopholes and bending the rules as much as possible. They are of course supported by an industry of enablers and administrators who find ways for their clients to keep to the letter of the law while evading the spirit of it, although often not even succeeding at that. That means that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is always playing catch-up, with any deterrence factor it represents always being ex post facto.

The radical solution offered by crypto is turning that calculation on its head, as Dr Robert Herian outlines in his book, “Regulating Blockchain”:

“Blockchain may offer an opportunity to recalibrate the power play between those who would engage in aggressive tax strategies and planning, and those charged with regulating or containing them by, for example, more effectively enforcing tax liabilities ahead of settlement on trust, rather than relying on bringing trustees to account post settlement.”

This is the essence of blockchain for good—an idea that the all-party group, of which I am chair, very much tries to promote: both individuals and the Governments they elect should be given the ability to hold third parties accountable in liberal democracies, and hopefully beyond.

In ensuring that crypto plays the role that it could, regtech—regulatory technology—will come increasingly to the fore over the coming decades. Given its traditionally attributed birthdate of 2008, we should note that crypto is now entering its third decade of existence, and I like to think that that could herald a new-found maturity. If there is something that we need to take from the recent crash, it is that the wild west days of crypto are over. Too many people have been affected, and too much is now at stake. The Government now have the opportunity to rein in the crypto bros and ensure they make good on their promises to investors, creating the environment for an industry ready to realise its potential.

In that spirit, I hope to make a few suggestions of my own about I think the Government should proceed. In the spirit of there being nothing new under the sun, which I touched on earlier, it is important to start with the Government and stakeholders understanding how much law is already in place to curb the worst excesses of a supposedly unregulated market. To quote Dr Robert Herian again:

“sandbox culture as the sine qua non of contemporary regulatory standoffishness at the state level has ultimately spawned the problematic regulatory conundrum with which we are now faced, one in which innovations and solutions have been legitimised.”

Quite simply, in pretending that they have no levers at their disposal, the spies and speculators who have proliferated all the way through our economic history have re-emerged in the guise of the crypto bros. The biggest step that the Government could take to redress the balance is to enforce the law that they already have.

Fraud is fraud—there are no two ways about it. The police are overwhelmed dealing with novel scams, but scams are what they are. Better training for those dealing with enforcement, and ensuring that they are able to work with those in industry who are ahead on best practice, is crucial. All of that cascades from an empowered and properly funded Financial Conduct Authority, which is not deliberately, as many have speculated, underfunded and under-resourced as a way of ensuring that many offenders slip through the gaps.

This situation has created many of the trust issues that crypto seeks to address: smaller-scale investors get stung by unscrupulous practices that larger entities can use an army of lawyers to protect themselves from. Although we could get into a long philosophical discussion about trust and the possibilities for post-trust, it is important to note that this aspect of crypto has not proven as transformational as many of its adherents promised.

The idea that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies would prove to be immune from inflation, speculation and the like has proven to be demonstrably untrue, as has the idea that a new form of stablecoin could come in as a forum of neutral exchange between the various types of crypto. The problems experienced, for example, by the Tether stablecoin demonstrate this. A simple solution whereby every dollar of the stablecoin is backed by a dollar of assets fell apart under the lack of accountability for the company’s owners, and the markets reacted in the way that markets usually do when promises are not met. In this place, vital to the functioning of any sort of crypto culture, the deliberate lack of trust—the post-trust aspect of the crypto stablecoin—came off worse after coming into contact with the entirely rational human instinct to need the sort of trust that has hitherto been provided only by institutions and, in this context, central banks.

My second proposal for regulation is therefore that the Government not only bring forward the regulation expected in the Financial Services and Markets Bill, but do their utmost to ensure that debates around that exceptionally important crypto development are able to be had in the House—and not only when the Bill is in Committee. The Bank of England published feedback on central bank digital currency proposals in June last year. It stated five core principles, the first of which is the most important:

“Financial inclusion should be a prominent consideration in the design of any CBDC.”

Paying heed to that core principle means the scales being tipped back away from the crypto whales, who are increasingly hoarding the new assets, in favour of the average investor, realising the potential that gave so many, previously excluded from the system, some hope that they could be part of it.

Similarly, the opportunities for Government to enable financial inclusion through the development of proposals for decentralised autonomous organisations are vital to ensuring that the benefits of access to stable digital fiat currencies can be extended to the broader commercial sector. I hope that company and contract law can keep pace with such developments in an inclusionary way. At the heart of that is, obviously, the Financial Services and Markets Bill. I hope the Minister will allow time in his remarks to elaborate on those aspects that may not come to the fore in the limited time that will be allocated to the new occupant of No. 11.

I have presented two solid, legalistic opportunities for the Government to regulate crypto, but I should also like briefly to touch on the opportunities that exist for the environmental impacts of crypto to be negated, with the creation of carbon-neutral data centres. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the renewable energy sector that the nation of Scotland is ultimately blessed with resources that should see us well placed to make the transition not only to a carbon-neutral future but—and forgive me for saying it—an independent, sovereign one.

However, thanks to the work of fellow SNP member Stuart Evers, we can see that Scotland also has the opportunity to become a hub for carbon-neutral data centres, which make use of three qualities that Scotland has in abundance: not only the technical expertise to provide new network security in large data centres, but the physical security offered by our natural landscape and the energy security provided by ready access to what are called dual renewable resources, whereby a primary green energy source is always backed by another green source should it fail. That is best accomplished by a combination of wind and tidal energy. Thanks to Stuart’s preliminary work, we can see that Scotland hosts a plethora of potential locations for such centres, primarily along our west coast and in the Orcadian archipelago. That is certainly not crypto-specific, but it is an important point to make when we think about the ways in which the benefits of a well-regulated and well-run crypto industry could be felt across these islands.

I appreciate that I have taken up quite a lot of the time allocated for the debate. I have set out three solid areas where this Government could legislate to better realise the promise of the crypto industry, but my primary objective was to ensure that there was, for the first time, a forum for debate on the many areas for regulation of the sector. I hope that I have provided a suitable introduction to the challenges and opportunities that exist in an increasingly fast-paced industry. I look forward therefore not only to the Minister’s remarks but to what hon. Members have to say about the potential they see in making crypto work better for everybody.