Articles Posted in Bitcoin and Blockchain

 

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Author: Jarod Bona

I believe that Bitcoin is the enemy of tyranny and the greatest invention of the 21st century. Its detractors tend to either not understand Bitcoin or believe that the people are best when they are controlled and manipulated.

Maybe that was a little hyperbolic? I don’t care.

The truth is that I am still learning. I am still crawling through the rabbit hole (a cliché, but one often used in this area) and I recommend that you do the same. The more I learn, the more excited I get about Bitcoin and what it means for our future.

As someone who has made the study of and interaction with competition his career, it is fun to watch a superior competitor to government fiat currency develop.

We had (and still have) gold, but that has its limitations: Mostly, dividing and carrying it.

Blockchain v. Bitcoin

First, an important clarification: The incredible blockchain technology developed from Bitcoin, but many cryptocurrencies now utilize this technology for themselves. And NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are becoming a big deal in certain circles; they utilize blockchains like Ethereum. Bitcoin is on a blockchain, but there are other blockchains out there and other currencies and applications that utilize these blockchains.

To really get it, you must understand the distinction between Bitcoin and everything else that might appear on a blockchain. The blockchain technology is exciting and there are use cases that people are testing all over the world. And others that we can’t even contemplate yet. But there is only one Bitcoin and it is different in kind from everything else. You should read the original Bitcoin white paper by Satashi Nakamoto here to learn more.

The Limited Supply of Bitcoin

Among other more complex reasons, Bitcoin is different because it is programmed such that the number of Bitcoin will never exceed 21 million (and it won’t even reach 21 million for a long time). As far as money is concerned, it is harder than gold (even though it isn’t physical). And there isn’t a central authority (i.e. a Central Bank or any other entity) that can add inflation or otherwise screw around with it.

Go ahead, read that last paragraph again. And try to comprehend how big of a deal this is.

Currencies (even government fiat) work by supply and demand and you would be shocked if you discovered how many new dollars are introduced into the world each year, especially the last couple years. Go ahead and look it up. And it is much more than just the actual cash-money printer. It is Congress and the President adding more debt and the Federal Reserve “stimulating” the economy. Even simple bank loans increase the money supply. Anyway, poke around the internet about this to add a new anxiety to your life.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Economics to understand that dramatically increasing the supply of something can negatively affect its value. And that’s just as true with dollars and other fiat currencies.

Did you know that “Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G. is really a ballad about the ravages of increases in the money supply?

Well, I made that up. But it would be a great title for what’s happened with fiat currency.

Network Effects

If you follow antitrust issues, you are now undoubtedly familiar with network effects. There are certain products, services, or platforms (even currencies) that become more valuable to each user, the more users participate. So, for example, if you are building a platform business, the more sellers on your platform, the more useful your platform will be to buyers, and vice-versa. This is one reason why you see so many new platform tech companies burning through money, charging customers as little as possible, sometimes nothing. The game is to win the market, at whatever cost. Then you can start to really monetize. Social media, of course, works the same way. People want to be where others are.

Anyway, Bitcoin also benefits from network effects. As more people use it as a store of value, the more valuable it becomes as a store of value. And while Bitcoin is also a medium of exchange, I think that its current role is much more of a store of value because it is still quite volatile and, frankly, those that understand it don’t really want to spend it as the value has consistently increased—sometimes dramatically—during this current adoption phase (which may continue for years).

Bitcoin as a Censorship-Resistant Medium of Exchange

As a medium of exchange, however, there is a second layer on top of the Bitcoin blockchain called the Lightening Network that makes it even easier for users to exchange bitcoin. And if you go to El Salvador (which has adopted Bitcoin as legal tender), you can utilize the lightening network, through an app, to purchase a McDonald’s Cheeseburger with bitcoin.

In addition, we are beginning to see people take all or parts of their salaries in bitcoin including the mayors of New York City and Miami. A company called Strike allows you to set up a direct deposit of your paycheck in part or in full in bitcoin. And as the government money printing starts to show up even in the official government inflation numbers, more and more people are looking for protection from the currency devaluation, which seems to have no end in sight. Bitcoin offers one possible solution, with its inherently limited supply that no person or entity can change.

Bitcoin (and Ethereum) have also literally saved lives by providing money for people in Ukraine when banks and ATMs weren’t available. And the government of Ukraine has taken in millions of dollars of donations in these cryptocurrencies. This isn’t a surprise as The Human Rights Foundation has long utilized Bitcoin to help those facing tyranny throughout the world.

The reason that Bitcoin is the solution to those under oppression is that it is decentralized such that no government, entity, or person can cancel it or remove people from its network. In that sense, it is censorship resistant. For the antitrust fans out there, not even a group boycott can keep you from using it. This censorship-resistant feature will likely become increasingly important, including in developed countries as banishment, oddly, seems to be in fashion as a method of punishment.

Bitcoin Competes with Government-Backed Currencies like the Dollar

Like any market, there is a market for currency. And the dollar, particularly in the United States, has market power. It is, at least for now, the world’s reserve currency. The dollar still competes well against currencies from other nation-states, despite its dramatic increase in supply, in part because other countries are doing the same thing, often to a much greater extent.

But now that there is an emerging non-government-backed currency, it will be interesting to see what happens. Bitcoin is vastly superior to government currency in many ways, but it has been around for a relatively short time, so many are still skeptical (I personally am not skeptical).

Besides Bitcoin, there are other currencies that will compete with the dollar, including China’s digital currency (which comes—at no extra charge—with high-tech surveillance tools). Bitcoin may not displace the dollar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it has a major role alongside it, as it is better than the dollar in certain ways. This includes the programmed fixed supply, alongside the fact that people can move Bitcoin across time and space more quickly and cheaply than government-backed currencies. And, of course, its censorship-resistant qualities are becoming more apparent and important on the world stage.

You might begin to see countries, including the United States, adopt their own digital currencies. But don’t be fooled: These currencies will not be censorship resistant and will always be subject to increases in their supply. They are not worthy competitors to Bitcoin and their dystopian qualities could be frightening for those that cherish freedom.

The Environmental Benefits of Bitcoin

The Bitcoin network runs on a proof-of-work system that changes energy to value that can be stored and transferred across time and space. So—like just about everything else human-created in this world—it requires energy. Those that don’t fully understand Bitcoin sometimes target the proof-of-work energy use as a reason to criticize this positive world-changing technology. You can tell what I think by the way I framed that sentence.

But what you don’t hear in these shallow articles by those that don’t truly understand Bitcoin (see, I did it again) is that Bitcoin utilizes energy in such a unique way that the environmental impact is likely to end up as a net positive. Of course, even that is unfair to Bitcoin as we don’t routinely criticize other technologies that use energy. But if you don’t understand something, you tend to fear it and look for flaws. So, I’m not surprised that the Bitcoin luddites get stuck on the energy usage.

Bitcoin mining can be done anywhere and anytime and allows those that mine to convert energy to value in the most flexible of circumstances. These features create positive consequences for energy markets and the environment.

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Author: Pat Pascarella

“The blockchain did it” is unlikely to be a winning defense in an antitrust suit.  That, combined with the current enforcement (and legislative) trends targeting digital platforms, counsels that companies choosing to adopt blockchain as, or in, their business, be cognizant of how the antitrust laws may be applied. Perhaps even more so than other technologies since some degree of immutability is a primary feature of blockchain.

Before discussing specific antitrust proscriptions potentially applicable to blockchain, a word about the current rhetoric around the need to amend the antitrust laws to keep up with technology and today’s marketplace. Not the first time this assertion has been made, and certainly not the last. As the use of distributed ledger technologies become more and more prevalent, I am sure we will hear it again directed specifically at blockchain. But the fact is that the current antitrust laws are more than sufficient to deal with anticompetitive conduct involving blockchain or any other new technology.

In the end, antitrust comes down to injury and causation. It is this elegantly simple inquiry that protects the antitrust laws from obsolescence. And while we may debate the appropriate type of harm or injury addressable by the antitrust laws, (see, e.g., the current debate regarding the consumer welfare standard), antitrust asks no more of a court or jury than to determine (1) whether the requisite injury occurred, and (2) how. This may be a tad oversimplistic, but not by much.

Such an analysis can be applied as effectively to matters involving blockchain as it has been to matters involving plastic forks, tuna fish, or search engines. Of course, blockchain will no doubt create some interesting bumps in the road.  Courts may need to assess new theories of relevant markets and measures of market power.  Issues of control for purposes of imposing liability will be debated ala Copperweld.  And there will no doubt be some head scratching over who exactly is liable when a public permissionless blockchain is used to facilitate some anticompetitive outcome, and to who? But these inquiries are only new in the sense that the antitrust laws are being applied to a new set of discernable facts—as they have been countless times already.

Therein lies the first lesson. What makes the application of the antitrust laws to a new technology difficult is not some failing of the antitrust laws, it is the learning curve for attorneys and courts about the new technology itself, the related markets, and the face of future competition to which the laws are being applied—i.e., the facts. (In apparent recognition of this, some Antitrust Division attorneys reportedly have already attended courses regarding blockchain.)

The good news for antitrust practitioners is that blockchain technology and applications are not half as complex as having to learn for the first time how an operating system or search engine works (or perhaps we have just become more tech savvy these past 20 years). And while there have been very few cases to date involving blockchain and antitrust or competition laws, we have decades of cases involving databases, industry organizations, and platforms that we can draw on to identify possible areas of mischief for blockchain.

I would suggest potential antitrust risks involving blockchain can be grouped into three baskets:

  • Blockchain as a facilitating mechanism.
  • Blockchain as a bad actor.
  • Antitrust violations within a single blockchain.

Obviously as the use of blockchain evolves from relatively simple transactions and applications such as cryptocurrency trading or running smart contracts, to supporting all manner of social and business interactions, the factual scenarios falling into these baskets will become more complex.  But the core analysis should remain the same.

Blockchain as Facilitating Mechanism

Most antitrust attorneys’ radar goes off when they hear the term “distributed ledger”—as it should.  They have spent years counseling clients not to share certain competitively sensitive information with certain other market participants (most often rivals). Not because the sharing itself is a violation of the antitrust laws, but because of what the sharing might facilitate – e.g., price fixing, customer allocation, group boycotts, etc.

In a blockchain world, invariably some competitively sensitive data will find their way onto a shared ledger. They may be sufficiently anonymized, or they may not. Perhaps in the future such data milliseconds old will be viewed as sufficiently “historic” to render its sharing of marginal concern—or perhaps not. And there is a good chance that the data will not have been included with the intent of facilitating some conspiracy. Still, the fact that rivals have access to their competitors’ real-time prices, costs, capacity, production levels, or bids poses some risk.

There will, of course, be many blockchain-specific nuances. Is the blockchain public or private?  Permissionless or permissioned? But the operative questions remain constant—will the blockchain give rivals access to competitively sensitive information about their competitors that they would not have but for the blockchain? And does it matter? Any such sharing may or may not be defensible and may or may not render the blockchain itself liable under the antitrust laws. Still, access to such information would seem to be a reasonable plus factor for an antitrust plaintiff to allege.

Relatedly, a blockchain also could be a handy mechanism for policing a price-fixing, production-limiting, or customer-allocation conspiracy. Some have suggested that smart contracts (an unfortunately misleading name), or some application or functionality, could be deployed via blockchain to monitor pricing and sales and react to transactions that fall outside the parameters of the illegal agreement—possibly redistributing profits earned via the cheating. I find this scenario somewhat unlikely as it essentially requires the conspirators to commit their agreement to writing—or in this case coding—both equally discoverable. Let us not forget, that no matter how secret (or encrypted) the plan or related communication, the effect will be necessarily visible enabling both detection and prosecution.

Other areas of potential mischief include:

A blockchain could facilitate the inadvertent (or intentional) creation of a standard—although the creation of a standard via a public permissionless blockchain might have some interesting defenses available.

Caution also should be taken to avoid actions that might support an allegation that the exclusion from a private blockchain amounts to a group boycott or refusal to deal.

The Blockchain as an Actor

Can a blockchain itself violate the antitrust laws much like a firm or company today? Say a blockchain influenced by its founders, developers, and users (and in some instances miners), enables some conduct or practice with the purpose and effect to exclude or raise the cost of a rival entity (e.g., a competing blockchain, or perhaps a competitor relying on a centralized control solution). Or the blockchain is used to implement rules that permit an exchange of data among its users that enables collusion to the mutual benefit of the conspirators and blockchain (a hub and spoke conspiracy).

I think it is safe to assume that the answer to that question is yes. This is not to say however that the prosecution of such claims will not pose some interesting questions. For example, is the blockchain a firm or person like a corporation for purposes of antitrust enforcement? Who is “the blockchain?” Is there some control group and what are its bounds?  (See, Blockchain + Antitrust, Thibault Schrepel (2021) for an interesting and well-informed discussion of this and other potential antitrust-related issues in a blockchain world.) While questions such as these are today unanswered, I would suggest that they will be relatively simple issues for courts to deal with. Contrary to whimsical theoretic discussions, these issues will be decided in the cold light of facts – i.e., who did what to whom.  Nothing courts haven’t been called on to do with every new technology and marketplace. What is the alleged injury? And who caused it?

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Following DOJ’s remarks on blockchain, it was only a matter of time until antitrust law and the unstoppable blockchain world would meet in court. And it finally happened some months ago in the complex Bitmain case.

In this case a cryptocurrency developer and mining company sued Bitcoin Cash miners, developers, and exchange operators for violating of Section 1 of the Sherman Act and Section 4 of the Clayton Act. It accused them of manipulating a network upgrade to take control of the Bitcoin Cash blockchain. The Court dismissed the Amended Complaint twice (the last one with prejudice), for failing to plausibly show a conspiracy to hijack the network and centralize the market, an unreasonable restriction of trade, and antitrust injury.

  1. Blockchain and cryptocurrencies

Blockchain is such a complicated technology that just the simple task of defining it would require a much longer article. But the Southern District Court of Florida did a great job explaining in very simple terms what these two concepts––blockchain and cryptocurrencies–– are:

Cryptocurrency is a form of digital currency that trades in currency markets. The Satoshi Nakamoto whitepaper, published in October 2008, launched the idea of this “peer-to-peer” version of electronic cash that allows online payments from one party to another, independent of any financial institution. The Whitepaper coined the term “Bitcoin”, and today Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash are different forms of cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies are a “permissionless” system that rely on a network of decentralized encrypted public ledgers that document all digital transactions, known as a “blockchain”. The blockchain is a series of blocks, which are units of accounting that record new transactions in cryptocurrency. Confidence and trust in the accuracy of the transactions in the blockchain is possible because the decentralized ledgers are identical and continuously updated and compared.

The system has mechanisms that allow for consensus on the validity of the blockchain. One is “Proof-of-Work”, which is designed to eliminate the insertion of fraudulent transactions in the blockchain. Also, the “main chain” (normally, the longest chain) at any given time, is whichever valid chain of blocks has the most cumulative “Proofs-of-Work” associated with it. A consensus being reached on the longest blockchain is essential to the integrity of the network.

New cryptocurrency is created through a process called “mining”. Miners compete to “mine” virtual currencies by using computing power that solves complex math puzzles. The computer servers that first solve the puzzles are rewarded with new cryptocurrency, and the solutions to those puzzles are used to encrypt and secure the currency. The awarded currency is then stored in a digital wallet associated with the computing device that solved the puzzle.

  1. The Bitmain case

In a nutshell, this case is about how certain mining pools, protocol developers and crypto-exchange defendants allegedly colluded to manipulate a network upgrade by creating a new hard fork, taking control of the Bitcoin Cash cryptocurrency. In the end, however, the court concluded that the plaintiff ––a protocol developer of blockchain transactions and mining cryptocurrencies––, failed to (i) show a plausible conspiracy, (ii) define any relevant product market to prove an unreasonable restriction of trade, and (iii) show any antitrust injury.

The Parties

As Konstantinos Stylianou effectively explains in his article What can the first blockchain antitrust case teach us about the crypto economy?, in the cryptocurrency world it is important to understand what the different players are and how they are connected in the market: investors, mining pools (groups of miners that combine their mining resources), crypto-exchanges, and protocol developers. We highly recommend his article.

The plaintiff, United American Corporation (UAC), is a developer of technologies for both the execution of blockchain transactions and mining cryptocurrencies. One of them is called BlockNum, a distributed and decentralized ledger technology that allows the execution of blockchain transactions between any two telephone numbers regardless of their location, eliminating the need for cryptocurrency wallets. The other one is called BlockchainDome, which provides a low-cost energy-efficient solution for mining cryptocurrency. UAC built four domes in total that operate over 5,000 Bitcoin Cash-based miners, investing more than $4 million in technology.

On the flip side, there are three different categories of defendants:

  • The mining pools: (i) Bitmain Technologies operate two of the largest Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Cash mining pools in the world: Antpool and BTC.com. It is also the largest designer of Application Specific Integrated Circuits (“ASIC”), which are chips that power the Antminer series of mining servers––the dominant servers mining on a number of cryptocurrency networks, including Bitcoin and Bitcoin derivatives; (ii) Wu, CEO of Bitmain Technologies and one of its founders; and (iii) Ver, founder of Bitcoin.com, which provides Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash services.
  • The crypto exchanges––Kraken and its CEO Jesse Powell––which operate exchanges on which Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash and other cryptocurrencies are traded.
  • The protocol developers Shammah Chancellor, Amaury Sechet and Jason Cox who––similarly to UAC––, work on the development of the software to execute blockchain transactions and mining of cryptocurrencies.

The Alleged Antitrust Conspiracy

Summarized from the briefing:

Bitcoin Cash (or “BCH”) emerged as a cryptocurrency from the original Bitcoin Core (or “BTC”) on August 1, 2017, as a result of a “hard fork”. A hard fork is a change to the protocol of a blockchain network whereby nodes that mine the newest version of the blockchain follow a new set of rules, while nodes that mine the older version continue to follow the previous rules. Because the two rule-sets are incompatible, two different blockchains are formed, with the new version branching off.

The 2017 hard fork resulted from a dispute over Bitcoin’s utility: whether it should primarily be used to store value or conduct transactions.

(Note: BTC’s resistance to this significant attempt to fork it further strengthened it by demonstrating that it can overcome an attack of this type. If BTC were subject to significant forks that change its nature, it would not have the trust it has now as a store of value. This and other attacks on BTC actually strengthen it—Bitcoin is Antifragile in this way).

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Author: Jarod Bona

I suspect that Antitrust DOJ head Makan Delrahim and I have had a similar reading list lately. And I am not even referring to any sort of antitrust books, like, for example, Steve Cernak’s book on Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising.

Let me explain.

I read, with great interest, a speech that Assistant Attorney General Makan Delraihim delivered on August 27, 2020 to the Conference on Innovation Economics in Evanston, Illinois (well, virtually).

His two topics were blockchain and Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.

As a consistent reader of this blog, I trust that you already know that I am a big fan of Nassim Taleb and, particularly, his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Indeed, a re-reading of Antifragile inspired an earlier article about Iatrogenics. If you haven’t read Antifragile, you should, right away.

My interest in blockchain, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrency systems like Ethereum is relatively recent. But—like many before me—a little bit of knowledge has created an insatiable appetite for more. I am making my way down the rabbit hole, as they say.

Let’s dig in and talk about what the Department of Justice thinks about both antifragility and blockchain.

Antifragile

What does the term “antifragile” mean?

You might think that robust is the opposite of fragile. But those of us that have read Taleb know that isn’t true. Something that is fragile is likely to break or weaken from stress, shocks, or variability. If something is robust, it will resist this stress, shock, or variance.

But what you really want during times of stress (or, really, just over time), is antifragility. If you are antifragile, you improve from stress, shocks, and variance, which are inevitable, especially as time passes.

The human body is, in some ways, antifragile. Lifting weights, for example, creates a stressor on the muscles and surrounding tissues, which cause, ultimately, an increase in strength. So make sure you get your deadlifts in this week.

Antifragile is the opposite of fragile and it is better than robustness.

There is a lot more to antifragility than this. Indeed, there is an entire book about it (and, really, a set of books—Incerto). I urge you to read more—it might change your life.

Earnest Hemingway understood antifragility when he said in A Farewell to Arms that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The next line is just as important for reasons you will understand if you read Antifragile: “But those that will not break it kills.”

So, what does antifragility have to do with the Department of Justice and antitrust?

Assistant Attorney General Makan, in his speech, emphasized that “the Antitrust Division has made protecting competition in order to advance innovation in the private sector one of our top priorities,” and that the Division wants to “ensure that antitrust law protects competition without standing as an impediment to rapid innovation.”

He then introduced the concept of antifragility and acknowledged that the pandemic can certainly be described as a “shock” producing a “wide array of trauma.” But with that harm comes an opportunity—“if we rise to the challenge of being antifragile, there is also an opportunity for tremendous growth.” More specifically, “[c]ritical innovations and technological developments often result from the kind of extraordinary experimentation the pandemic has made necessary. We have the opportunity to embrace antifragility, to delve into the experimentation and trial and error that drive growth, and to make ourselves better.”

According to AAG Makan, “[o]ur goal at the Antitrust Division is to extend the spirit of innovation beyond our latest efforts to combat the pandemic and protect competition—ultimately, to become antifragile.”

The market system—competition—is, of course, an antifragile system because it improves with variance over time, including shocks and stresses. As problems arise, the market provides solutions. As new preferences arise, the system meets those preferences. As demands for certain products or services decrease, resources move away from those areas. Indeed, the “heart of our national economy has long been faith in the value of competition.” And the purpose of the antitrust laws is to protect that competition.

I am pleased to read the DOJ Antitrust leader expressly affirm those values and I have no doubt that he believes them—you can’t read and quote Taleb and not be affected.

But let’s remember that large central government is not typically the friend of antifragility. Indeed, government interference is more likely to distort incentives and the market’s ability to adjust to stressors. It can also lock-up parts of the system and increase fragility.

When a knocking on your door is followed by a shout of “I am from the government and I am here to help,” your heart should feel fear not relief.

I view the antitrust laws, if applied with restraint, as similar to contract, property, and tort laws. They provide the rules of the game that allow the market to prosper. Failure to apply any of them uniformly or fairly harms the beneficial potential of markets and competition. But over-applying them does the same. Like much of life, sometimes the answer is complicated and doesn’t fit into a single tweet.

Government enforcers can, however, stay on the right track if they have in their mind the rule that doctors often forget: “First, do no harm.” Antitrust enforcement, like medical intervention, can be iatrogenic.

Blockchain, Bitcoin, and Cryptocurrency

The DOJ Antitrust Division’s attorneys have formally educated themselves on blockchain and other technologies. And, like me, once they started learning about it, they probably realized what a big deal it truly is.

My worry, frankly, is that the government is going to somehow screw it up.

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