Bitcoin draws more regulatory scrutiny

Federal regulators are considering beefing up their oversight of bitcoin and other virtual currencies.

Few regulations govern virtual currencies, which increasingly have drawn attention from law enforcement officials worried about their use in money laundering.

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“It's gotten to a level where I think for us not to take notice and to try and make some sort of determination about what to do would be irresponsible,” said Bart Chilton, a commissioner on the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

On Tuesday, federal officials charged the virtual currency service Liberty Reserve with running a $6 billion money laundering scheme, in what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said was “an important step towards reining in the ‘Wild West’ of illicit Internet banking.”

The Treasury Department also designated Liberty Reserve under a section of the Patriot Act that allows it to effectively freeze it out of the American financial system — the first such application of the measure for a virtual currency service.

Members of Congress and federal regulators have paid little attention to bitcoin so far; a search in the Library of Congress’s database finds no bills that even mention the currency.

But increased speculation in the currency's market and headlines about money laundering busts may change things.

The Liberty Reserve action comes just weeks after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed a warrant to seize funds from the world's largest bitcoin exchange, the Japan-based Mt. Gox, and charged that the company was operating as an unlicensed money transmitting service.

“It's just too large to say 'It's not my job,' or 'It's not our job,’” Chilton told The Hill. “Our job should be to be proactive and to think about what might happen if people are caught in the lurch.”

To guarantee protections in currency markets, Chilton has pushed for the CFTC to consider regulating bitcoin derivatives, such as placing conditions on bets on a future exchange rate.

“That's clearly within our jurisdiction,” he told The Hill this week.

Pressure on government regulators has grown as virtual currencies have skyrocketed in value and the public imagination.

One bitcoin currently equals about $130, though the exchange rate has jumped from about $20 at the beginning of the year and reached more than $250 in April.

While investors have latched on to the money looking for an easy payday, regulators fear that kind of volatility makes the market unstable and worry that the anonymous nature of the currency invites use by criminals.

In March, as the currency's value started to climb, the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued the first guidance clarifying that virtual currency administrators and exchangers would be treated like any other financial institution under the Bank Secrecy Act. 

Bitcoin watchers like Timothy McTaggart, a partner at the law firm Pepper Hamilton, thought the FinCEN guidance was “a little unusual” and a recognition by the government that it may have not been paying enough attention to the virtual currency market.

Agencies most likely do not need new legal authority to expand their oversight to the new currencies.

“I think that an argument could be made that the regulations are in place, it's just a matter of clarifying that this unique, novel thing that we know as bitcoin is indeed covered by the regulation,” said Ryan Straus, a lawyer in Seattle with the firm Graham and Dunn.

Congress could force regulators to take more notice, though no such legislation currently exists.

An aide with the Senate Banking Committee wrote in an email that “staff have been monitoring the use of various new digital currencies, as part of their routine oversight work, and will continue to follow developments in this area.”

“Certainly it requires a rigorous regulatory review by many agencies,” said Chilton. “Any time regulators can be more proactive in considering things like bitcoin, I think it makes for better governance.”

If they do, the regulators would need to walk a fine line to prosecute criminal money launderers and maintain market safeguards while not stifling innovation in the new financial sector.

“This is no different than banks have been for 200 years; there are banks who play by the rules and banks who don't,” said Michael Robinson, an executive vice president with the public relations firm LEVICK and former spokesman with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “And it's the same in the online currency market."

A slight lag in government regulation may just be the typical course for new technologies.

“I think the new technology tends to be ahead of the law, whether it's telecom or banking or biotech or so forth," added McTaggart. "You always run into the same issues of whether the existing framework is adaptable to the new technology.”