With Stewart on vacation, the blockchain takes over the podcast! In episode 121, Jason Weinstein and Alan Cohn talk all things bitcoin, blockchain, and distributed ledger technology, and interview Jamie Smith, Global Chief Communications Officer for the BitFury Group, one of the largest full-service blockchain technology companies.
In the news roundup, Alan led off with a discussion about Ethereum and the DAO, which of course begins by answering the question, “What is Ethereum and what is the DAO?” As Alan explains, Ethereum is a public blockchain similar to the Bitcoin blockchain, with code written in such a way as to optimize programming of “smart contracts,” self-executing contracts that transmit funds or take other actions based on the occurrence of defined events. Ethereum is run by a non-profit organization, the Ethereum Foundation, and has its own native currency called Ether. The DAO is an acronym for a “distributed autonomous organization,” which is essentially an organization that can operate in a decentralized manner (for example, on a blockchain) based on its programmed code rather than the actions of any governing individuals. In this instance, “The DAO” is the first of these types of organizations, which was created to fund projects that would work on Ethereum. For most of May, people could purchase DAO tokens using Ether, and the DAO tokens gave their holders the ability to vote “Yes” or “No” on funding proposals made to the DAO by companies or individuals wanting to build things. The submission of proposals, the voting, and the funding of projects were all programmed to take place essentially without human intervention, all based on the DAO’s programmed code. (Whew!)
Now for the news—the first major splash made by the DAO was not the funding of its first project, but rather an attacker’s “recursive call” attack which allowed him/her/them to withdraw approximately 3.6 million Ether—worth about $55M at the time of the attack—by exploiting an element of the code meant to allow people to withdraw from the DAO and convert their DAO tokens back to Ether. As Alan explained (and probably needed a glass of water and maybe a snack by this point), the DAO’s creators and the Ethereum Foundation were left with only a few responses, none of them ideal—void the attacker’s transactions but by doing so, demonstrate that transactions on a public blockchain can be voided; lock up the funds and figure out the next steps, which probably leads to a voiding of the transaction; roll back the entire Ethereum ecosystem to just before the attack (kind of like reverting your iPhone to a backup) but effectively constituting a “bailout” of the DAO; or concluding that “the code is its own documentation” and anything done under the code is permissible, which preserves the integrity of the DAO (and Ethereum) but leaves the attacker holding a lot of other peoples’ money.
For listeners who made it through all of that, Jason explained how the New York State Department of Financial Services issued its second BitLicense, this time to Ripple (the global settlement network, not the fortified wine), and at this pace, would get to double digits in terms of BitLicenses issued by 2022. Jason noted that this comes at the same time as industry efforts to focus attention on the dangers inherent in state-by-state licensing systems, although a single federal approach seems far off at this time.
Alan described the European Parliament’s recent resolution concerning virtual currencies, which was hailed as an anti-money laundering and counter terrorism financing action but in fact covers many aspects of virtual currencies and distributed ledger technology. The main headline was Parliament’s call on the European Commission to create a Task Force on virtual currencies. Alan channels Stewart for a moment, noting that the resolution actually says that Parliament “recalls that the internet, despite attempts to promote a multi-stakeholder approach, is still governed by the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Commerce.” That must still sting.
Jason notes that the blockchain has also come to DC in a big way, with one day of a three-day symposium run by the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund dedicated to blockchain. The White House also got into the game, holding a FinTech summit with various White House and Administration officials. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology heard from industry leaders on blockchain, and the White House Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity heard testimony on blockchain technology in one of its first meetings.
Finally, Alan reports on the Central Bank of Canada’s experiment with developing a digital version of the Canadian dollar based on blockchain technology. Dubbed “CAD-coin” and running on the “Jasper” Distributed Ledger Settlement Platform (rather than something more inspired and Canadian, like “Molson”), the Central Bank’s experiment with a private blockchain is meant to “better understand the technology first-hand,” and we applaud them for that.
In the interview, Jamie Smith first debunks rumors that she is, in fact, Satoshi Nakamoto, the original creator of Bitcoin (“We are all Satoshi,” Jamie graciously explains.) Jamie describes how she first got involved in the blockchain space, her experience leaving a comfortable post-Administration job at a global PR firm to join the BitFury Group, and her process of realizing that Bitcoin is not “criminal money” and that blockchain technology can change the world for the better. Jamie describes recent initiatives backed by the BitFury Group, including the Blockchain Trust Accelerator launched in conjunction with the think tank New America and the National Democratic Institute, and the Global Blockchain Business Council. Jamie also describes events at the second Blockchain Summit on Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island (Jason attended the first Blockchain Summit last year, and Alan attended this year’s Summit). Jamie gives a shout-out to the Blockchain Alliance, the organization co-founded by the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center to create a forum for the blockchain industry to engage with law enforcement (full disclosure: Steptoe serves as counsel to the Blockchain Alliance and Jason serves as its Director).
Next week, Stewart will be back and the podcast will turn back to cybersecurity issues. As always, the Cyberlaw Podcast welcomes feedback. Send email to CyberlawPodcast@steptoe.com or leave a message at +1 (202) 862-5785.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not reflect the opinions of the firm.