E-Commerce Taxation & Regulation

[The following essay is a guest post from Dan Rothschild, director of state projects and a senior fellow with the R Street Institute.]

As anyone who’s lived in a major coastal American city knows, apartment renting is about as far from an unregulated free market as you can get. Legal and regulatory stipulations govern rents and rent increases, what can and cannot be included in a lease, even what constitutes a bedroom. And while the costs and benefits of most housing policies can be debated and deliberated, it’s generally well known that housing rentals are subject to extensive regulation.

But some San Francisco tenants have recently learned that, in addition to their civil responsibilities under the law, their failure to live up to some parts of the city’s housing code may trigger harsh criminal penalties as well. To wit: tenants who have been subletting out part or all of their apartments on a short-term basis, usually through web sites like Airbnb, are finding themselves being given 72 hours to vacate their (often rent-controlled) homes.

San Francisco’s housing stock is one of the most highly regulated in the country. The city uses a number of tools to preserve affordable housing and control rents, while at the same time largely prohibiting higher buildings that would bring more units online, increasing supply and lowering prices. California’s Ellis Act provides virtually the only legal and effective means of getting tenants (especially those benefiting from rent control) out of their units — but it has the perverse incentive of causing landlords to demolish otherwise useable housing stock.

Again, the efficiency and equity ramifications of these policies can be discussed; the fact that demand curves slope downward, however, is really not up for debate.

Under San Francisco’s municipal code it may be a crime punishable by jail time to rent an apartment on a short-term basis. More importantly, it gives landlords the excuse they need to evict tenants they otherwise can’t under the city’s and state’s rigorous tenant protection laws. After all, they’re criminals!

Here’s the relevant section of the code:

Any owner who rents an apartment unit for tourist or transient use as defined in this Chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any person convicted of a misdemeanor hereunder shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period of not more than six months, or by both. Each apartment unit rented for tourist or transient use shall constitute a separate offense.

Here lies the rub. There are certainly legitimate reasons to prohibit the short-term rental of a unit in an apartment or condo building — some people want to know who their neighbors are, and a rotating cast of people coming and going could potentially be a nuisance.

But that’s a matter for contracts and condo by-laws to sort out. If people value living in units that they can list on Airbnb or sublet to tourists when they’re on vacation, that’s a feature like a gas stove or walk-in closet that can come part-and-parcel of the rental through contractual stipulation. Similarly, if people want to live in a building where overnight guests are verboten, that’s something landlords or condo boards can adjudicate. The Coase Theorem can be a powerful tool, if the law will allow it.

The fact that, so far as I can tell, there’s no prohibition on having friends or family stay a night — or even a week — under San Francisco code, it seems that the underlying issue isn’t a legitimate concern about other tenants’ rights but an aversion to commerce. From the perspective of my neighbor, there’s no difference between letting my friend from college crash in my spare bedroom for a week or allowing someone I’ve never laid eyes on before do the same in exchange for cash.

The peer production economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot that needs to be worked out. Laws like those in San Francisco’s that circumvent the discovery process of markets prevent landlords, tenants, condos, homeowners, and regulators from leaning from experience and experimentation — and lock in a mediocre system that threatens to put people in jail for renting out a room.

Last week, the Mercatus Center released “Bitcoin: A Primer for Policymakers” by yours truly and Andrea Castillo. In it we describe how the digital currency works and address many of the common misconceptions about it. We also analyze current laws and regulations that may already cover digital currencies and warn against preemptively placing regulatory restrictions on Bitcoin that could stifle the new technology before it has a chance to evolve. In addition, we give several recommendations about how to treat Bitcoin in future.

As I say in the video that accompanies the paper, Bitcoin is still very experimental and it might yet fail for any number of reasons. But, one of those reasons should not be that policymakers failed to understand it. Unfortunately, signs of misunderstanding abound, and that is why we wrote the primer.

Continue reading →

Sherwin Siy, Vice President of Legal Affairs at Public Knowledge, discusses emerging issues in digital copyright policy. He addresses the Department of Commerce’s recent green paper on digital copyright, including the need to reform copyright laws in light of new technologies. This podcast also covers the DMCA, online streaming, piracy, cell phone unlocking, fair use recognition, digital ownership, and what we’ve learned about copyright policy from the SOPA debate.


Related Links

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center discusses his recent working paper with coauthor Brent Skorup, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector. Thierer takes a look at how cronyism has manifested itself in technology and media markets — whether it be in the form of regulatory favoritism or tax privileges. Which tech companies are the worst offenders? What are the consequences for consumers? And, how does cronyism affect entrepreneurship over the long term?


Related Links

Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.


Related Links



National Review today runs a pretty unfortunate article about Bitcoin in which the reporter, Betsy Woodruff, tries to live for a week using only bitcoins—a fun stunt already done by Kashmir Hill about two months ago. Aside from misrepresenting libertarianism, what's unfortunate about the article is how Bitcoin is presented to NR's readers, many of whom may be hearing about the virtual currency for the first time. Woodruff, who admits she doesn't completely understand how Bitcoin works, nevertheless writes,

From what I can tell, the main reason Bitcoin has any practical value is the existence of Silk Road, a website that lets users buy drugs and other illegal material online. …

A lot of Bitcoin aficionados will probably take issue with my next point here, but I’m pretty sure history will eventually be on my side. My theory is that Silk Road is the Fort Knox of Bitcoin. Bitcoin, from what I can tell, isn’t valuable because of idealistic Ron Paul supporters who feel it’s in their rational self-interest to invest in a monetary future unfettered by Washington; Bitcoin is valuable because you can use it to do something that you can’t use other forms of currency to do: buy drugs online. As long as Bitcoin is the best way to buy drugs online, and as long as there is a demand for Internet-acquired drugs, there will be a demand for Bitcoin.

Woodruff is right that folks who understand Bitcoin will take issue with her because she's demonstrably wrong. While it's true that illicit transactions probably did help bootstrap the Bitcoin economy early on, we are way past the point where such transactions account for any sizable portion of the economy. It's easy to put her "theory" to the test: Nicolas Cristin of Carnegie Mellon has estimated that Silk Road generates about $2 million in sales a month. The estimated total transaction volume for the whole bitcoin economy over the last 30 days is just over $770 million. So, Silk Road accounts for about 0.25% of bitcoin transactions—far from being the "Fort Knox of Bitcoin," as Woodruff says. And to put that in perspective, the UN estimates that the illicit drug trade accounts for 0.9% of world GDP.

The fact is that Bitcoin is not only a revolutionary new payments system that potentially disrupts traditional providers and can help serve the billions of unbanked around the world, but it also has the potential to be a distributed futures or securities market, or a distributed notary service. This is why Peter Thiel's Founders Fund and Fred Wilson's Union Square Ventures are investing millions of dollars in Bitcoin startups. Should we really think that these investors have overlooked what Woodruff posits—that the only value of bitcoins is to buy drugs? No, and I hope NR updates its story.

Today I had the great pleasure of moderating a panel discussion at a conference on the “Virtual Economy” hosted by Thomson Reuters and the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. On my panel were representatives from the Bitcoin Foundation, the Tor Project, and the DOJ, and we had a lively discussion about how these technologies can potentially be used by criminals and what these open source communities might be able to do to mitigate that risk.

The bottom line message that came out of the panel (and indeed every panel) is that the Tor and Bitcoin communities do not like to see the technologies they develop put to evil uses, and that they are more than willing to work with policymakers and law enforcement to the extent that they can. On the flip side, the message to regulators was that they need to be more open, inclusive, and transparent in their decision making if they expect cooperation from these communities.

I was therefore interested in the keynote remarks delivered by Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the Director of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. In particular, she addressed the fact that since there have been several enforcement actions against virtual currency exchangers and providers, the traditional banking sector has been wary of doing business with companies in the virtual currency space. She said:

I do want to address the issue of virtual currency administrators and exchangers maintaining access to the banking system in light of the recent action against Liberty Reserve. Again, keep in mind the combined actions by the Department of Justice and FinCEN took down a $6 billion money laundering operation, the biggest in U.S. history.

We can understand the concerns that these actions may create a broad-brush, reaction from banks. Banks need to assess their risk tolerance and the risks any particular client might pose. That’s their obligation and that’s what we expect them to do.

And this goes back to my earlier points about corporate responsibility and why it is in the best interest of virtual currency administrators and exchangers to comply with their regulatory responsibilities. Banks are more likely to associate themselves with registered, compliant, transparent businesses. And our guidance should help virtual currency administrators and providers become compliant, well-established businesses that banks will regard as desirable and profitable customers.

While it’s true that FinCEN’s March guidance provides clarity for many actors in the Bitcoin space, it is nevertheless very ambiguous about other actors. For example, is a Bitcoin miner who sells for dollars the bitcoins he mines subject to regulation? If I buy those bitcoins, hold them for a time as an investment, and then resell them for dollars, am I subject to regulation? In neither case are bitcoins acquired to purchase goods or services (the only use-case clearly not regulated according to the guidance). And even if one is clearly subject to the regulations, say as an exchanger, it takes millions of dollars and potentially years of work to comply with state licensing and other requirements. My concern is that banks will not do business with Bitcoin start-ups not because they pose any real criminal risk, but because there is too much regulatory uncertainty.

My sincere hope is that banks do not interpret Ms. Shasky Calvery’s comments as validation of their risk-aversion. Banks and other financial institutions should be careful about who they do business with, and they certainly should not do business with criminals, but it would be a shame if they felt they couldn’t do business with an innovative new kind of start-up simply because that start-up has not been (and may never be) adequately defined by a regulator. Unfortunately, I fear banks may take the comments to suggest just that, putting start-ups in limbo.

Entrepreneurs may want to comply with regulation in order to get banking services, and they may do everything they think they have to in order to comply, but the banks may nevertheless not want to take the risk given that the FinCEN guidance is so ambiguous. I asked Ms. Shasky Calvery if there was a way entrepreneurs could seek clarification on the guidance, and she said they could call FinCEN’s toll-free regulatory helpline at (800) 949–2732. That may not be very satisfying to some, but it’s a start. And I hope that any clarification that emerges from conversations with FinCEN are made public by the agency so that others can learn from it.

All in all, I think today we saw the first tentative steps toward a deeper conversation between Bitcoin entrepreneurs and users on the one hand, and regulators and law enforcement on the other. That’s a good thing. But I hope regulators understand that it’s not just the regulations they promulgate that have consequences for regulated entities, it’s also the uncertainty they can create through inaction.

Ms. Shasky Calvery also said:

Some in the press speculated that our guidance was an attempt to clamp down on virtual currency providers. I will not deny that there are some troublesome providers out there. But, that is balanced by a recognition of the innovation these virtual currencies provide, and the financial inclusion that they might offer society. A whole host of emerging technologies in the financial sector have proven their capacity to empower customers, encourage the development of innovative financial products, and expand access to financial services. And we want these advances to continue.

That is a welcome sentiment, but those advances can only continue if there are clear rules made in consultation with regulated parties and the general public. Hopefully FinCEN will revisit its guidance now that the conversation has begun, and as other regulators consider new rules, they will hopefully engage the Bitcoin community early in order to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

Marc Hochstein

Marc Hochstein, Executive Editor of American Banker,  a leading media outlet covering the banking and financial services community, discusses bitcoin.

According to Hochstein, bitcoin has made its name as a digital currency, but the truly revolutionary aspect of the technology is its dual function as a payment system competing against companies like PayPal and Western Union. While bitcoin has been in the news for its soaring exchange rate lately, Hochstein says the actual price of bitcoin is really only relevant for speculators in the short-term; in the long-term, however, the anonymous, decentralized nature of bitcoin has far-reaching implications.

Hochstein goes on to talk about  the new market in bitcoin futures and some of bitcoin’s weaknesses—including the volatility of the bitcoin market.


Related Links

With Bitcoin enjoying a spike in price against government currencies, there is lots of talk about it on the Interwebs, including Jerry’s typically thoughtful post from earlier today. If you’re not familiar with it yet, here’s a good Bitcoin primer, which also counsels reading a lot more before you acquire Bitcoin, as Bitcoin may fail. If you like Bitcoin and want to buy some, don’t go all goofy. Do your homework. As if you need to be told, be careful with your money.

Much of the commentary in the popular press declares a Bitcoin bubble for one reason or another. It might be a bubble, but nobody actually knows. A way of guessing is to compare Bitcoin’s qualities as a currency and payment network to the alternatives. Like any service or good, there are many dimensions to value storage and transfer.

I may not capture them all, and they certainly don’t predict the correct price against the dollar or other currencies. That depends on the ultimate viscosity of Bitcoin. But Bitcoin certainly has value of a different kind: it may discipline fiat currencies and the states that control them.

Intrinsic Value: If you’re just starting to think about money, this is where you’ll find Bitcoin an obvious failure. These evanescent strings of code have no intrinsic value whatsoever! Anyone relying on them as a store of value is a volunteer victim. Smart people stick with U.S. dollars and other major currencies, thin sheets of cloth or plastic with special printing on them…

No major currency has intrinsic value. Indeed, there isn’t much of anything that has intrinsic value. The value of a thing depends on other people’s demand for it. This is as true of Bitcoin as it is of dollars, sandwiches, and sand. So the intrinsic value question, which seems to cut in favor of traditional currencies, is actually a wash.

Transferability: Bitcoin is good with transferability–far better than any physical currency and quite a bit better than most payment systems. Not only is it fast, with transactions “settling” fairly quickly, but it is borderless. The genius of PayPal (after it gave up on being a replacement monetary system itself) was quick transfer to most places that rich people want to send money. Bitcoin allows quick transfer anywhere the Internet goes.

Acceptance: Bitcoin bombs badly in the area of acceptance. Try buying a sandwich with Bitcoin today and you’ll go hungry because few people and businesses accept it. This is a real problem, but it’s nothing intrinsic to Bitcoin. When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, people didn’t understand that credit cards were like money. (Watch the video at the link two or three times if you need to. It’s not only a great moment in sports.) Acceptance of different form-factors for value and payments can change.

Cost: How many billions of dollars per year do we pay for storage and transfer of money? Bitcoin is free.

Inflation-Resistance: Assuming the algorithms work as advertised, the quantity of Bitcoin will rise to a pre-established level of about 21 million over the next couple of decades and will never increase after that. This compares favorably to fiat currencies, the quantity of which are amended by their managers, sometimes quite dramatically, to undercut their value. If you want to hold money, holding Bitcoin is a better deal than holding dollars. Which brings us to…

Deflation-Resistance: Without central planners around to carefully debase its value, Bitcoin might go deflationary, with people refusing to spend it while it rises against all other stores of value and goods. Arguably, that’s what’s happening in the current Bitcoin price-spike. People are buying it in anticipation of its future increase in value.

Deflation can theoretically cause an economy to seize up, with everyone refusing to buy in anticipation of their money gaining in value over the short term. There is room for discussion about whether hyper-deflation can actually occur, how long a hyper-deflation can persist, and whether the avoidance of deflation is worth the risk of having centrally managed currency. I have a hard time being concerned that excessive savings could occur. However, whatever the case with those related issues, Bitcoin is probably deflation-prone compared to dollars and other managed currencies.

Surveillance-Resistance: Where you put your money is a reflection of your values. Payment systems and governments today are definitely gawking through that window into our souls.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, allows payments to be made with very little chance of their being tracked. I say “little chance” because there is some chance of tracking payments on the network. Sophisticated efforts to mask payments will be met by sophisticated efforts to track them. Relatively speaking, though, payments through traditional payment systems like checks, credit cards, and online transfer are super-easy to track. Cash is pretty darn hard to track. So Bitcoin stacks up well against our formal payment systems, but equally or perhaps poorly to cash.

Seizure-Resistance: The digital, distributed nature of Bitcoin makes it resistant to official seizure. Are you in a country that exercises capital controls? (What a euphemism, “capital controls.” It’s seizure.) Put your money into Bitcoin and you can email it to yourself. Carve your Bitcoin code into the inner lip of your frisbee before heading out on that Black Sea vacation. Chances are they won’t catch it at the border.

Traditional currencies either exist in physical form or they’re held and transferred by institutions that are more obediant to the state than they are loyal to their customers. (If Cyprus has anything to do with the current price-spike of Bitcoin, it’s as a lesson to others. Cypriots apparently did not move into Bitcoin in significant numbers.)

Because Bitcoin transactions are relatively hard to track, many can be conducted–how to put this?–independent of one’s tax obligations. In relation to the weight of the tax burden, Bitcoin may grow underground economies. Indeed, it flourishes where transactions (in drugs, for example) are outright illegal. Bitcoin probably moves the Laffer curve to the left.

Security: The tough one for Bitcoin is security. Most people don’t know how to store computer code reliably and how to prevent others from accessing it. Individuals have lost Bitcoin because of hard-drive crashes. (This will cause small losses in the total quantity of Bitcoin over time.) Bitcoin exchanges have collapsed because hackers broke in. And there’s a genuine risk that viruses might camp on your computer, waiting for you to open your (otherwise encrypted) wallet file. They’ll send your Bitcoin to heaven-knows-where the moment you do.

When a Bitcoin transaction has happened, it is final. Like a cash expenditure or loss, there is no reversability and nobody to complain to if you don’t have access to the person on the other side of the transaction. The downside of a currency that costs nothing to transfer is the lack of a 1-800 number to call.

So Bitcoin lags traditional currencies along the security dimension. But this is not intrinsic to Bitcoin. Security will get better as people learn and technology advances. (How ’bout a mega-firewall that requires approval of all outbound Internet traffic while the wallet is open?)

There may be Bitcoin-based payment services, banks, and lenders that provide reversibility, security, that pay interest, and all the other goodies associated with dollars today. To the extent they can stay clear of the regulatory morass, they may be less expensive, more innovative, and, in the early going, more risky.

So what’s the right price for Bitcoin? Only a fool can say. (No offense, all of you declaring a Bitcoin bubble.) I think it depends on the ultimate “viscosity” of Bitcoin.

Let’s say Bitcoin’s exclusive use becomes a momentary medium of exchange: Every buyer converts currency to Bitcoin for transfer, and every seller immediately converts it to her local currency. There’s not much need to hold Bitcoin, so there’s not that much demand for Bitcoin. Its equilibrium price ends up pretty low.

On the other hand, say everybody in the world keeps a little Bitcoin on hand for quick, costless transactions once there’s a handy, reliable, and secure Bitcoin payment system downloadable to our phones. If lots of people hold Bitcoin just because, that highly viscous environment suggests a high price for Bitcoin relative to other currencies and things.

Whatever the case, people are now buying Bitcoin because they think others are going to buy it in the future. Whether they’re “speculators” trying to buy in ahead of other speculators, or if they’re buying Bitcoin as a hedge against the varied weaknesses of fiat currencies and state-controlled payment systems, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter, I think, is having this outlet. The availability of Bitcoin is a small, but growing and important security against fiat currencies and state-controlled payments. It is a competitor to state money.

Bitcoin’s existence makes central bankers slightly less free to inflate the money they control, states will have slightly less success with seizing money, and surveillance of traditional payment systems will be decreasingly useful for law enforcement, taxation, and control.

I don’t think Bitcoin delivers us to libertarian “Shangri-la” or anarcho-capitalism, but it’s a technology that fetters government some. It’s a protection for people, their hard-earned wealth, and their privacy. That’s the value of Bitcoin, in my mind, no matter its current price.

I caught this tidbit today in a Washington Post article about Julius Genachowski’s tenure as Federal Communications Commission chairman:

He wound up presiding over a crucial period in which the powerful companies of Silicon Valley turned into Washington power players. Lobbying the FCC has become a major economic franchise. Each day, hundreds of dark-suited lawyers crowd the antiseptic, midcentury-modern agency building.

Can anyone think this is a good thing? To be clear, I don’t think Genachowski is solely responsible for Silicon Valley innovators getting more aggressive in Washington or for tech lobbying becoming “a major economic franchise” at the FCC. There’s plenty of blame to go around in that regard. Regardless, every legislative and regulatory action that opens the door to greater regulation of the information economy also opens the door a bit wider to unproductive rent-seeking and cronyist activities. Moreover, every minute and every dollar spent focusing on making legislators and regulators happy is another minute and dollar that could have better been spent making consumers happy in the marketplace. It’s a pure deadweight loss to society.

And there has been a remarkable expansion in such tech lobbying activity over the past decade, as the following charts illustrate. The first shows the dramatic growth of lobbying by computer and Internet companies relative to other sectors and the second shows lobbying spending by specific computer and Internet companies. [Click to enlarge.]

Continue reading →