China’s moves against cryptocurrencies could affect blockchain growth
While the hype around bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has sent their prices skyrocketing, some governments and companies are restricting activity to head off potential money laundering and protect consumers from a credit meltdown.
Cryptocurrencies have begun to exit once-friendly China for more open nations and other regions and businesses are beginning to impose restrictions on how – or even whether – they can be used.
Open blockchains, such as bitcoin, are only the first to be affected by increased regulatory oversight. Depending on how they’re used, permissioned blockchains, or those that are centrally administered and used for general transactions, could also be affected by the push to reign in the cryptocurrency technology.
With cheap electricity, China was once a haven for vast, power-hungry server complexes that perform the algorithmic processing for bitcoin and other blockchain-based virtual currency networks. In recent years, however, China has gradually clamped down.
China moves to clamp down
Last year, China outright banned initial coin offerings, a form of crowdfunding for cryptocurrencies, and later put the kibosh on trading in electronic currencies. More recently, the government began shutting off the power faucet for bitcoin mining pools, or large server farms that perform cryptocurrency processing.
“The market is very entrepreneurial and we’ll see the bitcoin transaction processing move elsewhere pretty quickly,” said Paul Brody, global innovation leader for blockchain at EY. “It may well boost other cryptocurrencies, especially those with a lower carbon footprint in the transaction processing work and more business and IT applications like Ethereum.”
The company running two of China’s biggest bitcoin mining pools, Bitmain and BTC, Top is the third largest mining pool, have set up mining operations in the US and Canada. And ViaBTC, the fourth largest mining pool operation, has opened facilities in Iceland and the US, according to Bloomberg News.
There are various reasons China and other countries hope to take a more hands-on regulatory approach to cryptocurrencies, which to date have existed in an oversight Wild West, according to Martha Bennett, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.
Regulatory crackdowns, however, aren’t limited to China. This week, the city of Plattsburgh, NY imposed an 18-month moratorium on commercial cryptocurrency mining because operations chewed through its monthly allotment of electricity; it was the first time a US city has resorted to such a ban.
In January and February, hungry data centers used for cryptocurrency mining operations in Plattsburgh consumed 10% of the city’s power, forcing the city to buy additional energy on the more expensive open market. That, in turn, has driven up the cost of power for residents, according to a report by MarketInsider.
Plattsburgh has attracted cryptocurrency mining operations because its electricity costs are less than half the national average.
Dangers of cryptocurrencies
There is also a growing concern that cryptocurrency could be a threat to the current financial system through unbridled speculation and unsecured borrowing by consumers looking to purchase the virtual money.
“We have seen increasing evidence that people are borrowing to invest in cryptocurrencies, and in some cases borrowing on credit cards to invest in it,” Bennett said. “That could lead to a credit collapse.”
The price of the leading cryptocurrency, bitcoin, has skyrocketed to nearly $20,000 in recent weeks only to plunge to under $13,000 before recoverying to about $14,500. The second most popular cryptocurrency, Ethereum’s Ether, also saw its price skyrocket over the past month from $481 to more than $1,300.
As the use of cryptocurrencies expands, regulators worldwide are considering more oversight.”This isn’t just about China and regulators but the wider ecosystem is really clamping down,” Bennett added.Israel recently declared bitcoin not an actual currency, calling it instead a financial asset that remains difficult to regulate for the purposes of mitigating risk for banks and consumers.
“Beyond the risks to the customer there are also compliance risks to the bank,” Israel’s Deputy Governor Nadine Baudot-Trajtenberg told a meeting of the parliamentary finance committee.
In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has ordered the suspension of cryptocurrency trading by one company due to “unusual and unexplained market activity”. More generally, SEC regulators around the country have regularly tweeted out warnings about cryptocurrencies.
Two weeks ago, Visa terminated its relationship with WaveCrest, a company that converted cryptocurrencies into cash on a prepaid Visa debit card for common transactions. Beyond saying WaveCrest violated its “operating regulations,” Visa didn’t explain its decision. Bennett, however, speculated there may have been a concern the pre-paid cards would be used for money laundering.
“Where you have money laundering concerns, you have regulatory issues,” she said. “If you have bitcoin and can turn that into dollars… even if it’s only $1,000 a time, then you just go and get another debit card.”
As a virtual, electronic currency, bitcoin, Ethereum and others allow anyone to exchange money on a blockchain-based peer-to-peer network in real time, anywhere in the world – and without a central governing authority such as a bank or credit card company.
Cryptocurrencies have existed in a gray area that allows for cross-border transactions that are far more efficient than traditional fiat-based currencies, such as dollars or euros.
Blockchain can offer transparency
There is virtually no risk of identity theft on a blockchain because every participant is anonymous; the only thing being verified through a cryptographic hash is the digital wallet used to send and receive virtual currencies.
Most financial networks built on blockchains, such as Ethereum, are operating within strong regulatory frameworks often between banks, such as the R3 consortium.
“Those networks are already subject to pretty careful regulatory scrutiny and are unlikely to be affected by clampdowns on bitcoin,” Brody said.
Governments have been slow to regulate cryptocurrencies because, while they could be used for nefarious purposes, they are also capable of establishing transparent, efficient and trustless virtual currencies that can bolster business efficiency.
While nations may one day unify on common cross-border regulations, that will likely be a slow and complex process compared to hammering out domestic regulations, Brody said.
“The choke-point in bitcoin is becoming the exchange where people can move value between cryptocurrencies and to and from classical fiat currencies,” Brody said. “Subjecting those exchanges to audit and know-your-customer requirements should do a great deal to help structure and normalise the market.”
In fact, China is considering creating its own blockchain-based cryptocurrency as online transactions have surged there.
Clamping down on bitcoin currencies could actually help promote more nefarious activity by newer blockchain-based cryptocurrencies. While bitcoin is highly traceable due to its platform being an open, immutable electronic record, some of the new cryptocurrencies are making use of new techniques that make it very hard or nearly impossible to trace transactions, Brody said.
“Clamping down on bitcoin could result in a shift towards those currencies, so it’s not something that financial authorities should do without considering the consequences,” he said.
IDG News Service