Web 3.0 requires new regulatory thinking

“A digital economy is not simply an industrial economy on the internet.” The Blockchain Innovation Hub at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia recognizes a truth governments worldwide have not. Web 3.0, the approaching next internet phase with unprecedented methods of commerce, is unique in history. The Industrial Revolution transition is analogous. Changes of this magnitude require governments to reevaluate their economic oversight role. Web 3.0 will challenge old models of what constitutes a firm, a security, and a commercial transaction. The Royal Melbourne Institute provides some worthwhile proposals to welcome this new cyber world.   

In the future, shareholders will run companies directly through smart contracts coded into decentralized applications—no management required. Cars will pay each other to pass or change lanes. Houses will rent out spare bedrooms upon predefined criteria. Computers will sell extra file storage to the continuously, to the highest bidder. And people will buy, share, and exchange value in myriad forms without any impeding central authority.

Web 3.0 threatens government dominance over the economy

Thus far wary governments have reacted in two ways. The more authoritarian ilk seek to capture the new technology whilst eliminating private competition. For instance, China began researching digital money in 2014. It plans to force exclusive use at the cost of privacy, freedom, and political dissent.

Western democracies seek to force Web 3.0 innovations into compliance with familiar legal structures with which they share little. The administrative state’s paternalistic for-your-own-good dictates contradict the bottom-up-individual-empowered future. Risk aversion defines this approach as SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce conveyed in a recent speech,
“Regulators . . . tend to be skeptical of change because its consequences are difficult to foresee and figuring out how it fits into existing regulatory frameworks is difficult.” Overly cautious officials create confusion and uncertainty whilst forcing firm capital into legal departments.

SEC is the Web 3.0’s biggest enemy

Nowhere has government ineptness been more prominent than Ms. Peirce’s agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission. Chair Gary Gensler began his term calling for an active policy agenda and vigorous crypto prosecutions. The Commission’s legal basis for these prosecutions is the Supreme Court’s interpretation of ‘investment contract’ arising from a 1940s dispute over orange groves.  

Orange groves as analog to code that can serve as currency, gateway keys, representations of physical objects, and countless other functions makes no sense. Nonetheless, through dated legal interpretations, the government has forced or threatened the shutdown of platforms the were or could have benefited the masses. The commission’s litigation against Ripple has exposed its abusive tactics. But unless Congress limits what constitutes ‘investment contracts’ or removes it from the definition of security completely, the commission will continue its war on innovators.

Unfortunately, the SEC is hardly an outlier. The Commodities and Future Trading Commission and IRS have also moved to limit Web 3.0’s potential. Their allies in Congress have urged them forward.

SEC should learn from Oz

Brighter minds at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have suggested a better way which embraces innovation and discards the staid bureaucratic mindset. US policy makers should heed their proposals lest Oz surpass America as the future’s preferred home.

These proposals include:

  • A new classification for management-less crypto firms known as Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). Limited Liability DAOs would exempt token holders from liability in the same manner as principals in Limited Liability Companies.
  • Treating stablecoins pegged to fiat currency as ordinary currency without any special compliance features.
  • Safe Harbors for innovation to shield nonfraudulent activity provided they meet certain requirements.
  • Avoiding state-level licensing schemes like New York’s Bit License.
  • Simplifying tax reporting.  

As the Institute states, “Transitioning to a digital economy is not simply placing our existing industries on the internet. It is a much deeper process of enabling and facilitating new business models and organizational structures, such as automation and decentralization.” To those creating the future economy this seems manifest. But only direct limitation of bureaucratic discretion will force government actors to agree.

By Jossey PLLC

A version of this post appeared on the blog of the Competitive Enterprise Institute on September 3, 2021, https://cei.org/blog/web-3-0-requires-new-regulatory-thinking/

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