We at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society — and, in particular, here at the Cyberlaw Clinic — are thrilled to share today’s announcement from our friends and frequent collaborators at the MIT Media Lab of the Lab’s new Digital Currency Initiative. MIT has been a leader on both the study and implementation of bitcoin-based systems, with the MIT Bitcoin Club bringing students and others together to think about the development of bitcoin-related platforms and the MIT Bitcoin Project putting virtual currency in the virtual hands of students in an effort to generate interest in emerging payment systems. We are ecstatic to see the Media Lab put its weight behind research on and facilitation of blockchain-based technologies and welcome the effort to formalize its role as a neutral hub and convening force on the topic of digital currency.
The promise of bitcoin rests on its ability to facilitate secure and private financial transactions, and such privacy and security — in turn — rests upon the transparency and decentralized nature of the blockchain. As Brian Forde, Director of Digital Currency at the Media Lab, noted today’s announcement, the successful implementation of a public ledgers could have ramifications far beyond payments and payment systems:
This new system lets people transfer money without a bank. Write simple, enforceable contracts without a lawyer. Or, turn physical items like real estate or tickets to the ball game or concert into digital assets that can be sold with low to no transaction fees. Many are projecting that the impact will be similar to that of the Internet–disrupting traditional industries, challenging existing regulations, and significantly increasing the volume of commerce by dramatically lowering the cost to transact and establishing trust between two previously unknown parties.
The breadth of what is possible here is extraordinary and will impact the work of many in far-flung corners of the Media Lab and Berkman Center communities, well beyond those with a direct interest in cryptocurrencies.
MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito notes in his blog post today that he intends for this effort to be “multinational and multistakeholder,” and he mentions the Berkman Center as one collaborator. The Center has long had an interest in this space with a particular focus on law, policy, and governance issues — from the pioneering work of members of the Berkman community like Primavera de Filippi (who has worked on distributed public ledgers in a variety of contexts) to the Clinic’s own work with the MIT Bitcoin Club (developing resources and support the identification and management of legal and regulatory concerns with the use of bitcoin). We welcome the opportunity to continue — and further intensify over the next academic year — these community-based efforts and support and complement the Media Lab in this important and timely work.