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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Isle of Man Goes Crypto-Crazy

I'm indebted to my colleagues in the Isle of Man for pointing me to the IoM's recent Designated Businesses (Registration and Oversight Act 2015, which imposes various registration and anti-money laundering requirements on distributed ledger technology. Do we have a poster-child for how regulation of new technology can go way too far?

The IoM compliance obligations are aimed at: 
"the business of issuing, transmitting, transferring, providing safe custody or storage of, administering, managing, lending, buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise trading or intermediating convertible virtual currencies, including crypto-currencies or similar concepts where the concept is accepted by persons as a means of payment for goods or services, a unit of account, a store of value or a commodity;"
This seems likely to be counter-productive, to say the least, given that the 'currency' aspect of distributed ledgers is often merely there to reward the 'miner' or processor of transactions or events that occur on the ledger, regardless of whether those events are themselves financial in nature - financial services being merely one of many different potential applications.

So, should every business on the IoM that uses, or might wish to use, distributed ledgers register with the authorities and introduce AML controls on everyone it deals with, just in case? Maybe so...

Two specific points to make:

1. ‘convertible virtual currencies’ are defined more broadly than one would expect:
“including crypto-currencies or similar concepts [neither term being defined, except by what follows…] where the concept is accepted by persons as a means of payment for goods or services, a unit of account, a store of value or a commodity”, 
Most definitions of a ‘currency’ require all these criteria to be met, not just any one of them. Imagine what would happen to the US Dollar, for example, if suddenly it was not accepted as meeting just one of the above criteria...  Indeed, for this reason many people disagree that Bitcoin - the most widely used form of 'crypto-currency' - is still nothing more than a commodity.

In addition, none of the typical exemptions under payment services regulations seem to be imported here. To take but one relevant example: consumer loyalty/rewards programmes are typically exempt on the basis that the rewards are only accepted as a means of payment within a 'limited network'. Do the local authorities really want every business participating in a loyalty scheme on the Isle of Man to register and apply AML controls just because the scheme involves distributed ledger technology? Maybe so...

2.  Similarly, the list of activities that trigger the relevant compliance obligations would seem to cover a vast array of potential services and their providers/users - recognising that these are distributed ledgers to which all computers running the protocol have the same access. Again, just think of consumer loyalty programmes as you go through the list:
the business of issuing, transmitting, transferring, providing safe custody or storage of, administering, managing, lending, buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise trading or intermediating...
Even payment services regulation, for instance, exempts technology services that support transactions without the service provider handling funds. And the whole point of the ledger is that no intermediary is actually handling funds - its all happening peer-to-peer amongst machines - indeed perhaps everyone's device is handling the funds. Furthermore, there will be instances where access to a distributed ledger is just one element of a wider system - as in the car-rental example, or tracking shipping containers - and it may not be clear to everyone that a distributed ledger is involved if it's just to share the location or state of a vehicle or container.

Still, the Isle of Man's approach might at least be useful in demonstrating how regulation in this area can go too far...