Bitcoin – to regulate or not to regulate?

And by whom?

The virtual currency Bitcoin has pretty much taken the world by storm since it’s launch in 2009. With impressive value growth, the currency has quickly become a popular choice for traders and investors. Some have even suggested that the Bitcoin and other virtual currencies could be the saving grace for countries in dire economic straits.

In March, the world’s first Bitcoin ATM was opened on Cyprus after banks had been closed for a week. The ATM allows customers to deposit “real money” into a Bitcoin ATM in exchange for bitcoins and vice versa – making the virtual currency, a very real option for those who didn’t have access to money during the Cypriot crisis.

So seemingly, the cyber-currency seems to be taking off. Stateless and bankless, Bitcoins are not subject to regulation or fees, and therefore enjoy extreme volatility, according to its proponents. But according to regulators, this is exactly the problem.

For example, Bitcoin value recently dropped by nearly 80 per cent from an all-time high of $266 before crashing to $55 on one particular bleak April day, resulting in large losses for investors.

This prompted the US financial regulator, CFTC, to consider regulating the virtual currency Bitcoin in a bid to protect consumers against the risks associated with the currency.

Growing concerns over the online cash being used for illicit activities also led the US Treasury Department to implement new money-laundering rules, forcing Bitcoin and other virtual currency firms to comply with strict regulation.

With new regulatory scrutiny, proponents of the virtual currency might find themselves hard-pressed to maintain Bitcoins’ independence from the financial authorities.

But I can’t help but ask, are these latest moves by the American authorities, too little too late?

One Bitcoin investor recently stated that if US regulations made it hard for Bitcoin businesses to operate in the US, then they would just move to other countries and still be able to use the currency wherever they wanted.

And what’s more, bitcoins have already become a global phenomenon, reaching consumers across the world and bringing with it, it’s extreme potential for risk. So the question is how much of an impact the regulation of one state can have on virtual currencies? Rather it seems, that if Bitcoin and its competitors should be regulated, it should be by a global regulatory body. So I’m definitely hoping that the potential for both extreme growth and risk in bitcoins is acknowledged soon by more than just the US regulators. 

Whether or not you support the concept or have ever bought a Bitcoin, the matter of fact is, that a lot of other people have. And with ongoing financial turmoil, many more might come to rely on the virtual currency. So hint hint regulators, now is definitely the time to ask – to regulate or not to regulate the Bitcoin?

Photograph: Getty Images

Sandra Kilhof Nielsen is a freelance writer and former reporter for Retail Banker International, Cards International & Electronic Payments International.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.