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2022.09.09 笼罩着乌云的加密货币

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Crypto’s Core Values Are Running Headfirst Into Reality
The cat’s out of the bag on crypto regulations, forcing some companies to choose between their principles and their profits.

By Will Gottsegen
A crypto coin with a cloud over it
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty
SEPTEMBER 9, 2022, 8 AM ET

Crypto was taking off, and governments were finally starting to act like it. In 2013, when a young writer and software developer named Vitalik Buterin wrote an impassioned screed defending the blockchain gospel for his publication, Bitcoin Magazine, cryptocurrencies were still a niche curiosity. But a series of regulations was spooking the nascent industry, threatening the sort of anti-government ethos that has always been core to the project. For Buterin the panic felt a little overblown. Crypto, he argued, couldn’t truly be regulated. After all, this was the whole point of the new system: an internet with no masters, no mediators, and no guardrails. “The future of crypto-libertarianism is fine,” he wrote. “Stop worrying.”

This is the promise crypto advocates have sold consumers and politicians over the past decade, as crypto has blown up into a trillion-dollar behemoth—in the process making Buterin, now best known as the founder of the Ethereum network, very, very rich. (Buterin’s Ethereum Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.) Even as crypto has wormed its way into the mainstream, the argument goes, the tech was constructed in such a way as to prevent meddling on the part of banks and governments. For example, Jesse Powell, CEO of the Kraken exchange, has referred to crypto networks as “censorship-resistant rails of last resort.” And the venture-capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz, now the foremost backer of crypto start-ups, has invoked that same idea in promoting its multibillion-dollar funds.

But what might have rung true in 2013 doesn’t hit quite as hard in 2022. Thanks in part to its attempts to garner mainstream recognition, crypto is now rubbing up against renewed governmental scrutiny. In recent weeks, a subtle yet significant move from the Treasury Department has exposed some of the rhetorical misconceptions at the heart of the industry, suggesting that the tech can be meddled with after all.

Read: Have the crypto bosses learned anything at all?

For all the talk of crypto as a slick new alternative to a corrupt and outmoded banking system, companies have now found themselves backed into a corner: Either they can comply with regulations that could essentially defang the promise of the technology, or they can stay the course, at great cost to their bottom lines. And for the most part, companies look to be choosing the easy way out, principles be damned. It’s a sign that crypto is growing up from its youth oriented around building a new financial system, instead evolving into something like a new wing of Big Tech. The more crypto matures, and the more it integrates into the existing scaffolds of American capitalism, the more it strays from its core ideals.

The panic began in early August, when the Treasury Department decided to sanction a program called Tornado Cash, essentially forbidding any person or business in the U.S. from interacting with it in any capacity. Tornado Cash is a tool that makes Ethereum transactions more or less untraceable, scrambling the paper trail on a famously transparent blockchain. It’s great for well-meaning privacy enthusiasts worried about prying eyes, but it’s also great for cleaning up dirty money: State-backed North Korean hackers reportedly used the program to launder more than half a billion dollars’ worth of Ethereum in April.


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Tornado Cash isn’t all that popular of a program, but the implications of the sanctions are far-reaching. It threatens to affect how the entire Ethereum blockchain—now the second-largest crypto network after bitcoin—functions in practice. Permit me a moment of crypto-splaining: When you ask your computer to send some Ethereum to a friend, you need to wait for another computer in the network to verify the transaction, ensuring that you have enough money to send and that it’s going to the right address. Without that go-ahead, the money is stuck in limbo.

Right now, that happens through a process called “mining,” though Ethereum plans to replace its miners with a new, more energy-efficient system of “validators” later this month. Technically anyone can be a validator, but because validation requires having lots of crypto on hand, it’s mostly companies that do this work, pooling together customer funds and taking a cut of the profits. According to Decrypt, more than 60 percent of the validation will go through four companies. And if the computer doing the validating belongs to an American company (even if you yourself are not based in the U.S.), it will need to abide by the sanctions, making it harder for anyone anywhere in the network to use Tornado Cash.

Read: The petty pleasures of watching crypto profiteers flounder

The end result risks what crypto has always wanted to avoid: censorship. Because the companies behind these validators are subject to punishments for violating the sanctions, the reality is that your money can be effectively frozen by a watchful government. It’s a small dent in the armor that is Ethereum’s resistance to censorship, and one that may not necessarily affect more casual users—but the fact that the armor can be dented at all is telling. Who knows what the Treasury might decide to sanction next? “It reveals what was true all along,” Angela Walch, a law professor at St. Mary’s University who studies crypto, told me. “The cat’s out of the bag for both regulators and the crypto sector that [censorship resistance] is kind of a myth.”

American validators have no good options here. If they choose to comply with the sanctions, they’re conceding that governments can meddle in transactions after all, and potentially allowing innocent bystanders to get caught in the crossfire. If they don’t, they risk violating Treasury Department guidelines—a move that’s not particularly sustainable for a growing industry.

In practice, companies will need to either comply with the sanctions and renege on their Don’t Tread on Me roots, or simply halt their validation businesses altogether, skipping out on gobs of money in the process. “For crypto companies, this is where the rubber is meeting the road,” Walch said. “Their talk about this being a democratizing force, and ‘neutrality is important,’ and ‘everyone should have the ability to freely transact’—okay, are you going to follow the law, or are you going to follow the purported ethos of the space? We’re hitting the point where you’re not going to have it both ways anymore.”

No one should be surprised that the denizens of crypto Twitter—that twisted artery through which all blockchain-related discourse seems to flow—are lobbying for the latter option. To the faithful, the choice of how to respond to these sanctions is almost a moral issue. If you’re willing to comply with the Tornado Cash sanction, the thinking goes, maybe you never really cared about what made the blockchain special to begin with. A crypto YouTuber suggested that if Ethereum validators capitulate to the sanctions, the whole system would be “for beta males.”

A few crypto leaders are not backing down. Buterin, more a technologist than a company man, is on record as saying he would opt to punish validators who comply with the sanctions. Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, arguably the most influential executive in the American crypto sphere, has said the same of his company’s validators; yesterday, the exchange announced that it’s bankrolling a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury over the sanctions. When Ethereum upgrades later this month, Coinbase will control an estimated 15 percent of the market for the network’s validation process, making it one of the most powerful individual actors in the system. Shutting down a portion of a business that’s poised to create major gains for Coinbase, especially on the heels of a particularly bad quarter, would be borderline disastrous. (A spokesperson for Coinbase pointed me to a webinar it hosted to discuss the fallout of the sanctions, but declined to comment further.)

But by and large, most companies have so far stayed mum on this question. For some, the silence could represent genuine confusion as to how exactly they’re meant to conform to the sanctions. For others, though, it may be just a way of passing the buck: The industry seems to be more concerned with enshrining its place in the American financial system than with taking an ideological stand at the expense of profit, and it’s possible an official statement to that effect would only inflame the community. Last week, a spokesperson for Kraken, which runs an Ethereum validation business alongside its exchange, said in an email that the company is “carefully monitoring the discussion on the potential implications of Tornado Cash sanctions for validators,” but refrained from expanding on how it plans to comply with the new sanctions. A 2018 mission statement from Jesse Powell might give you a hint as to where the company is headed, however: He wrote that his “ideological motivation” to build a world-class exchange was entirely dependent on “working with regulators.” Lido Finance, another prominent source of validators, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

That companies are finally confronting these issues is a sign the industry is maturing, for better or for worse. Crypto was originally conceived as an alternative to traditional finance, a way of sidestepping the big banks. But what happens when the new system grows into the old one? When Buterin wrote his blog post a decade ago, a single bitcoin cost $120. At the heart of last year’s surge, that price hit $69,000. In 2022, venture-capital firms and investment banks are putting billions into the idea that crypto will have some role in the future of global finance. Blackrock has a private Bitcoin trust for its clients, and JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs all have dedicated crypto divisions.

In this new era, companies will have to decide: accept the reality of regulation and continue to grow their businesses, or find some way of skirting the new rules entirely. At least, they’ll finally have to pick a side.

Will Gottsegen is a writer based in New York.


作者:Will Gottsegen
Tyler Comrie/The Atlantic; Getty

加密货币正在起飞,政府也终于开始像它一样行动。2013年,当一位名叫维塔利克-布特林(Vitalik Buterin)的年轻作家和软件开发人员为他的出版物《比特币杂志》(Bitcoin Magazine)写了一篇捍卫区块链福音的慷慨陈词时,加密货币仍然是一个小众的好奇心。但是,一系列的法规正在惊吓着这个新生的行业,威胁着一直以来作为项目核心的那种反政府的气质。对于布特林来说,这种恐慌感觉有点过头了。他认为,加密货币不可能真正受到监管。毕竟,这是新系统的全部意义:一个没有主人、没有调解人、没有护栏的互联网。"加密自由主义的未来是好的,"他写道。"不要再担心了。"

这是加密货币倡导者在过去十年中向消费者和政治家兜售的承诺,因为加密货币已经膨胀成一个万亿美元的庞然大物--在这个过程中,布特林现在以以太坊网络的创始人而闻名,他非常非常富有。(Buterin的以太坊基金会没有回应评论请求。)即使加密货币已经进入主流市场,但这种说法认为,技术的构建方式可以防止银行和政府的干预。例如,Kraken交易所的首席执行官Jesse Powell将加密货币网络称为 "抗审查的最后手段"。风险投资机构Andreessen Horowitz,现在是加密货币初创企业的最主要支持者,在宣传其数十亿美元的基金时也援引了同样的想法。




恐慌始于8月初,当时财政部决定制裁一个名为 "龙卷风现金 "的项目,基本上禁止美国的任何个人或企业以任何身份与之互动。龙卷风现金是一种使以太坊交易或多或少无法追踪的工具,扰乱了以透明著称的区块链上的纸质线索。这对担心被窥视的善意隐私爱好者来说是很好的,但对清理脏钱来说也是很好的。据报道,国家支持的朝鲜黑客在4月利用该程序清洗了价值超过5亿美元的以太坊。



现在,这是通过一个叫做 "挖矿 "的过程进行的,尽管以太坊计划在本月晚些时候用一个新的、更节能的 "验证者 "系统来取代其矿工。从技术上讲,任何人都可以成为验证者,但由于验证需要手头有大量的加密货币,所以大多是公司在做这项工作,把客户的资金集中起来,从中抽取利润。根据Decrypt的说法,超过60%的验证工作将通过四家公司进行。而如果做验证的电脑属于一家美国公司(即使你自己不在美国),它将需要遵守制裁,使网络中任何地方的人更难使用龙卷风现金。


最终的结果有可能是加密货币一直想要避免的:审查制度。因为这些验证者背后的公司会因违反制裁而受到惩罚,现实是你的钱可能被一个警惕的政府有效地冻结。这是以太坊抵制审查制度的盔甲上的一个小凹痕,而且不一定会影响到更多的休闲用户,但盔甲能被打凹的事实就说明了这一点。谁知道财政部接下来会决定制裁什么?圣玛丽大学研究加密货币的法律教授安吉拉-沃尔奇(Angela Walch)告诉我,"它揭示了一直以来的真实情况"。"对于监管机构和加密货币部门来说,这只猫已经出来了,[审查制度的阻力]是一种神话。"


在实践中,公司将需要遵守制裁,放弃他们的 "不要踩我 "的根基,或者干脆完全停止他们的验证业务,在这个过程中放弃大量的资金。"Walch说:"对于加密货币公司来说,这就是橡胶与道路相遇的地方。"他们说这是一种民主化的力量,'中立性很重要','每个人都应该有自由交易的能力'--好吧,你是要遵守法律,还是要遵守这个领域所谓的精神?我们已经到了不能两全其美的地步了。"

没有人应该感到惊讶的是,加密货币Twitter的居民--所有与区块链相关的讨论似乎都流经这条扭曲的动脉--正在为后一种选择进行游说。对信徒来说,如何应对这些制裁的选择几乎是一个道德问题。如果你愿意遵守龙卷风现金的制裁,这种想法是,也许你从来没有真正关心过区块链的特殊之处。一位加密货币YouTuber建议,如果以太坊验证者屈服于制裁,整个系统将是 "为beta男性服务"。

一些加密货币领导人并没有退缩。布特林是一个技术专家,而不是一个公司的人,他公开表示,他将选择惩罚那些遵守制裁的验证者。Coinbase首席执行官布莱恩-阿姆斯特朗(Brian Armstrong)可以说是美国加密货币领域最有影响力的高管,他对自己公司的验证者也是这么说的;昨天,该交易所宣布,它正在资助一场针对美国财政部的制裁的诉讼。当以太坊本月晚些时候升级时,Coinbase将控制该网络验证过程的估计15%的市场,使其成为该系统中最强大的个人行为者之一。关闭一个准备为Coinbase创造重大收益的业务的一部分,特别是在一个特别糟糕的季度之后,这将是边缘的灾难性。(Coinbase的一位发言人向我指出,它举办了一次网络研讨会,讨论制裁的后果,但拒绝进一步评论)。

但总的来说,到目前为止,大多数公司都对这个问题保持缄默。对于一些公司来说,这种沉默可能代表了对他们究竟应该如何遵守制裁规定的真正困惑。但对其他公司来说,这可能只是一种推卸责任的方式。该行业似乎更关心在美国金融体系中的地位,而不是以牺牲利润为代价的意识形态立场,而且有可能官方声明只会激怒社区。上周,与交易所一起经营以太坊验证业务的Kraken的发言人在一封电子邮件中说,该公司正在 "仔细监测关于龙卷风现金制裁对验证者的潜在影响的讨论",但避免扩大其计划如何遵守新的制裁。不过,杰西-鲍威尔2018年的一份任务声明可能会给你一个提示,告诉你该公司的发展方向:他写道,他建立一个世界级交易所的 "思想动机 "完全取决于 "与监管机构合作"。另一个著名的验证人来源--丽都金融,没有回应多个评论请求。



Will Gottsegen是一位驻纽约的作家。
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