Hi Reddit – I’m Ben Lawsky, Superintendent of Financial Services for the State of New York. Thanks to those of you who requested that I do an AMA on the work our agency – the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) – is doing on oversight rules for virtual currency firms. We'll get started around 12:30pm EST.

PROOF: https://twitter.com/BenLawsky/status/436544922892906496

We’re still in the process of formulating our views on a number of these issues – given that this is an ongoing regulatory process. So I may not be able to provide final or definitive answers to all of the questions you ask. But I’ll do my best to try and provide a window into some of our thinking at this stage. (I may even ask a few questions of my own during the course of the conversation, if that’s okay.) We’re trying to proceed without any prejudgments and solicit a broad range of views on virtual currency. I’m looking forward to a substantive and informative discussion.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m new to Reddit. So apologies in advance if I violate any posting etiquette. I was also told not to mention something called “Rampart” – whatever that is

For those of you interested in some background on our agency’s work in this area, NYDFS has been conducting an inquiry on the appropriate regulatory guidelines for virtual currency firms for the last seven months. As part of that inquiry, in January 2014, NYDFS held public hearings in New York City on virtual currency. More than 14,000 people from 117 countries tuned into those hearings online, which was not the usual turnout we get!



Last week, we also laid out some of our initial thoughts on the path forward for regulators:



Our expectation is that – during the course of 2014 – the information we’ve gathered in our fact-finding effort will allow us to put forward a proposed regulatory framework for virtual currency firms operating in New York. We want to move expeditiously because the sooner we provide some regulatory certainty, the better for the firms that want to know what the rules of the road are. At the same time, we recognize this is complicated stuff and we don’t want to go too fast, make a mistake, and create unintended consequences. Most of all, we want to get detailed feedback from all sides so we can make smart, modern, forward-looking decisions. Thanks to all of you for being here.

UPDATE 2:22 PM EST Sorry I have to run (also -- AMA's are more tiring than I would have expected!). Thanks to all of you for the thoughtful questions and comments. And to those who tipped me Bitcoin, I doubt I'm allowed to accept but appreciate the thought!

I'll try to come back and answer some additional questions later. I can't tell you how useful this is to our regulatory process. With that in mind, I'd like to pose a few questions to you if you'd like to answer them while I'm away from the computer:

(1) What do you personally find as the most useful and/or important current application for virtual currency? (2) Where do you think virtual currency tech is headed in the medium term and long term. (3) Are there particular problems from a consumer perspective you've had in dealing with virtual currency firms that regulators should consider?

EVENING UPDATE I circled back and answered a few more of your questions, but I have to head out for the evening. Thanks again for your thoughtful questions and feedback.

EVENING UPDATE x2 I also recorded a short sign-off video to thank everyone here for their questions and comments http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRXVPq16n_c

Comments: 1208 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

djleo382 karma

Hi Ben Lawsky, thanks for doing this! My question is why is money laundering still a priority for regulators? As former Federal Reserve Governor Lawrence Lindsey noted:

Between 1987 and 1995, the government collected 77 million currency- transaction reports, something on the order of 62 tons of paper. Out of that, it was able to prosecute 3,000 money-laundering cases. That is roughly one case for every 25,000 forms filed. In other words, entire forests had to be felled in order to prosecute one case. But it gets worse: Of the 3,000 money-laundering cases prosecuted, the government managed to produce only 580 guilty verdicts. In other words, in excess of 100,000 reports were filed by innocent citizens in order to get one conviction. That ratio of 99,999 to one is something we normally would not tolerate as a reasonable balance between privacy and the collection of guilty verdicts.

BenLawsky100 karma

At DFS, we're regulators not prosecutors. So we don't have indictment power or bring criminal cases. However, we do have an obligation to help ensure the integrity of the financial system and as part of that to prevent money laundering. It is worth repeating that without massive money laundering it is very hard for terrorism to thrive. So we see our anti-money laundering (AML) work as one of our more important obligations. Now that doesn't mean we should be undertaking unreasonable and/or ineffective means to find and address money laundering. But the Know Your Customer (KYC) rules we have for banks are important. The key is finding the most effective methods to root out and deter money laundering without having an overbearing impact on those who are just trying to use the system legally and without driving firms out of business with extraordinary compliance costs.

bitcoind3274 karma

One of the key problems with existing AML/MoneyTransmitter legislation is that it's simply impossible to comply with unless you have a multi-million dollar legal budget. How will you make sure that it's possible for small startups and sole traders are able to comply with the new legislation?

BenLawsky216 karma

This came up a lot at our hearings. We face similar problems in our regulation of smaller community banks. Dodd Frank, for example, was designed to address problems created by our largest institutions but at times has hit these smaller banks (who had little to do with the causes of the financial crisis) disproportionately in terms of compliance costs, etc. We've had some success in getting these regulations amended so they don't crush smaller community banks. Any regulations we issue for virtual currency firms will have to be carefully tailored with this in mind. Thanks for raising this.

bruce_fenton196 karma

In the hearings you said "The choice for the regulators is: permit money laundering on the one hand, or permit innovation on the other, and we’re always going to choose squelching the money laundering first. It’s not worth it to society to allow money laundering and all of the things it facilitates to persist in order to permit 1000 flowers to bloom on the innovation side.” To be honest this statement is rather concerning .....do you really mean this?

Surely you would not support the shut down Wall St. tomorrow to let those jobs move elsewhere, right? That would stomp 1000 flowers and also have a much bigger impact on reducing money laundering than Bitcoin.

It seems that part of what America is about is innovation and creation of jobs.

Couldn't you stop a great deal of money laundering tomorrow by simply regulating all the existing Wall Street banks out of existence?

BenLawsky111 karma

I was giving a hypothetical at the hearing that used a very stark choice in order to underscore how important it is for all of us that we get the balance right and ensure that we have appropriate bsa-aml protections in place while at the same time not stifling innovation. In context, I was also trying to emphasize that money laundering is not to be taken lightly -- in many ways it is the lifeblood of terrorism around the world. My hope is that if we can get appropriate guardrails in place to prevent money laundering, we can take a deep breath and really focus on trying to ensure that virtual currency firms flourish and continue to develop and innovate. I'm very excited about what the future could hold for this very powerful technology.

sebicas185 karma

Most banks lately are closing Bank accounts with Bitcoin related activity, like transfers to Coinbase, etc. Some merchants are afraid that they will loss their bank account if they get involved with Bitcoin, as already happened to some of them.

Why do you think Bank are doing this? Will your proposed regulation help us address this issue?

BenLawsky114 karma

I can't tell you exactly why particular banks are taking certain actions but they may have some concerns related to Bitcoin being new, its price volatility, as well as the recent criminal cases. I think new, careful regulations, especially related to preventing money laundering, will make banks more comfortable with Bitcoin-related activity over time.

evoorhees163 karma

Mr. Lawsky, thank you for doing this AMA. I respect that.

Question: Do you believe, from an ethical/moral perspective, that an individual has a right to financial privacy? Specifically, ought every individual be compelled to reveal their transactions and holdings of wealth to the United States government?

Ultimately, it is to this moral question that the Bitcoin debate, and all policy surrounding it, will come.

BenLawsky74 karma

I think financial privacy is an important value. I certainly don't love the fact that when I purchase something online, I quickly receive a bunch of email solicitations which clearly show that my information has been sold to other companies. At the same time, there is an important competing value in preventing money laundering which often requires that those engaging in financial transactions (especially when large) provide some identifying information so we can make sure we're not permitting things like terrorist financing. The tricky question is whether we can come up with smart rules that might require personal identifiers for certain transactions at certain entry points into the system while still protecting financial privacy while moving around within that system. We're obviously still in progress on this topic.

bruce_fenton153 karma

The UN states that over a trillion dollars per year is laundered through mainstream financial systems....over 100 times the size of all Bitcoin in existence....is it worth so much effort to regulate a new fledging technology which could create jobs compared to focus on existing banking systems?

BenLawsky80 karma

I don't think the two are mutually exclusively. We do a lot of work on money laundering at banks. The money laundering that goes on at banks is awful and we treat money laundering, wherever it occurs, with the utmost seriousness. I'm a former prosecutor who (a bunch of years ago) worked on terrorism cases in the years after 9-11. So I think we pay extra attention to money laundering issues in all its forms at DFS. I doubt you all have patience for a regulatory agency tooting its own horn, but if you are interested in some of the work we've done related to bank money laundering, this CoinDesk article runs through some of it. Most importantly, our work in this area in continuing and will remain a top priority.

EDIT: Sorry, adding link: http://www.coindesk.com/ben-lawsky-friend-foe/

biopsychologist133 karma

I just want to thank you for doing this AMA.

We appreciate being involved.

BenLawsky117 karma

Thanks. And sorry the answers are coming a little slow. Your questions merit thought before I type (and I'm not the greatest typist).

skajake96 karma

If a business uses "multisignature transactions" whereby the business does not control enough of the keys to release funds on their own, does this or does this not mean that the business is engaged in "money transmitting"? My personal interpretation would be no, as the business never took deposit of the money, as defined by having complete access to the keys.

I believe blockchain.info uses a similar argument to avoid dealing with money transmitter laws with their online wallet.

BenLawsky73 karma

Will look into further. Thanks for raising. Part of the challenge in applying money transmissions laws to virtual currency.

fearistehmindkiller93 karma

Mr. Lawsky,

First off I'd like to thank you for doing this AMA and for your open approach to regulation in general. I have three questions that I'd like to ask.

  1. The regulatory barriers to setting up an exchange in the U.S. are extremely high, in large part because of the requirement for exchanges to obtain 47 separate money transmitters licenses. In light of the fact that there isn't a single major Bitcoin exchange located in the U.S., it seems clear that to some extent this regulation is driving innovation out of the country. Do you have any personal opinions on how state and federal regulators might address this issue?

  2. There have been several cases of users receiving warnings or even having bank accounts closed simply for dealing with legitimate Bitcoin related companies like Coinbase. Is one of your goals with regulation to clarify the legal status of cryptocurrencies so that this ceases to be another barrier to innovation?

  3. At the senate hearings last fall, comments by Jen Shasky of Fincen and the member of the secret service seemed to indicate the federal law enforcement officials have all the tools they need in order to prosecute crimes involving cryptocurrency. The failure of multiple silk roads and the arrest of Charlie Shrem among others seems to support this. In light of this fact, what are your thoughts on the recent comments by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew?

"As a policy matter, what we have to look at across all the different forms of payment is that the same rules apply, it’s a level playing field,” he said. “Just as with cash or checks, if there’s virtual currency or online payment methods, they’ll have to comply with all the same laws that everybody else complies with. It’s not going to be ok to do elicit activity, whatever form of currency you’re using.”

Thanks again.

BenLawsky125 karma

First, let me compliment your screen name. Probably my favorite line from Dune.

Your questions are all good and I hope my previous answers mostly addressed them. Just a few additional notes: 1. We hope regulatory clarity will attract exchanges to the United States. I suspect that they are staying offshore right now because they don't know what the rules of the road here are or will be. 2. We do hope that regulation will create a level of certainty that could incentivize banks to promote not stifle these innovations. I also suspect there are banks who are quite interested in the technology but are being risk averse for now in the absence of regulatory clarity. 3. I think Secretary Lew was expressing that money laundering, in whatever form, needs to be dealt with seriously.

crimdelacrim72 karma

Mr. Lawsky, how effective do you believe issuing bit licenses will be at deterring "unregulated" bitcoin transactions? If you believe bit licenses are necessary, why don't we have cash licenses to protect consumers?

BenLawsky53 karma

We currently license money transmitters like Western Union that transmit in fiat currency. The question we are hard at work on now is whether our existing rules for the Western Unions of the world (which were written before anyone had even thought of an Internet) are adaptable to the virtual currency world or whether we need a separate more modernized framework that is more geared to the specific characteristics of virtual currency.

optimator99964 karma

Tax law has a concept of a “defensible position”. That is, ultimately, the tax authority may decide you are wrong, but it if you have a defensible position you’ll be held accountable for only the taxes and interest and not the penalties.

However, AML law seems to say either you did or did not; there is no try.

How can bitcoin based businesses operate in the absence of digital currency law and not fear for civil and criminal penalties?

Alternatively, doesn’t waiting for regulation leave those same businesses open to jurisdictional arbitrage from companies starting in foreign jurisdictions?

BenLawsky57 karma

This is one of the reasons why we'd like to put out the regulatory framework for Bitcoin sooner rather than later. We do think that regulatory clarity could have many benefits for these businesses. At the same time, we want to move carefully and not go so fast that we fail to see the unintended consequences of the framework. And, most of all, we want to hear from as many varied voices as possible -- one of the reasons we're hear today.

bluemonkfilms57 karma


BenLawsky105 karma

I don't. But I hear Preet (Bharara) is looking to offload some!

OnlineDegen54 karma

Some people contend that the manner of the Charlie Shrem arrest was a PR stunt coordinated by regulators and law enforcement to intimidate bitcoin entrepreneurs a day ahead of the NY DFS hearings.

For instance, rather than pick up Charlie quietly (say, at the restaurant he owns in Manhattan), or call him on the phone and ask him to report to the police station, they arrested him in the middle of the airport and perp walked him out of there.

Was the publicity tied to his arrest connected in any way to the hearings a day later?

Is NY DFS above such tactical maneuvers?

BenLawsky39 karma

Let me be clear on this. Absolutely not true.

aqv99t53 karma

Many bitcoin enthusiasts think that the widespread adoption of some form of cryptocurrency is an inevitability and that unfriendly governments such as China and Russia will ultimately be powerless to stop it. Do you share this view?

BenLawsky75 karma

Hard to put the genie back in the bottle. I can't predict the future but Bitcoin is certainly a new powerful technology that holds a lot of promise for the future if we can mitigate some of the potential negatives like money laundering.

stop_runs52 karma

Given the high profile arrests and shutdown of the Silkroad, along with comments from Law Enforcement during the Senate hearings, does there even need to be any more regulation regarding bitcoin? During the Senate hearings and with the arrests, it seems that law enforcement can capably find and arrest any bad actors with the current laws and regulations already. IMO, adding any more regulations will just lead to innovation elsewhere.

BenLawsky34 karma

I hear you and understand your point. The law enforcement we had at the hearing did not agree and said that building cases in this area against those committing crimes is still quite onerous. We certainly are hoping our regulations will lead to more innovation here not less. And to the extent there are firms engaging in money transmission, we are affirmatively obligated to regulate and put in a licensing scheme.

BitCyprus52 karma

Dear Mr. Lawsky

I hope we, in Cyprus, had such open minded, progressive and diligent regulators. Unfortunately we do not.

I congratulate you for your openness and innovative thinking. New Yorkers are lucky to have you.

Regards from Nicosia

BenLawsky44 karma

Thanks. Trying to get it right.

Onetallnerd41 karma

Are Bitcoin ATMs legally safe if they are in compliance with state and federal laws? Are you going to regulate or make the installation of these ATMs clear on a legal standpoint. Basically so that investors feel safe installing them without fear of the state changing its mind and outlawing bitcoin ATMs?

BenLawsky19 karma

We're taking one step at a time. Don't have answers yet re: ATMs. It's a question we will have to face down the road. We;ve moving as quickly as possible ot provide clarity.

Zamicol35 karma

What are your feelings on redditors dubbing you 'supernintendo'?

BenLawsky64 karma

I love it. No one knows what Superintendent means anyway.

TheBTC-G35 karma

Thank you for doing an AMA; I am impressed with your "open-source regulation" approach so far. Can you please explain why you feel there is value in banning tumblers? Furthermore, do you not think this infringes on an individual's right to privacy, financial privacy in particular? Lastly, do you think that regulation could feasibly ban tumblers and adequately keep track of "illegal" use of tumblers?

BenLawsky26 karma

We are looking closely at "tumblers" and have been getting some feedback both pro and con. Don't have answer yet on that and would welcome additional thoughts people have. At our hearing, it was clear the use of tumblers was something that had created issues for law enforcement in their investigations. At the same time, we understand there can be legitimate uses for tumblers and we get that there can be real value in having privacy when it comes to financial transactions. Again, it becomes a question of getting the balance right.

100acrewood18 karma

I'd like to point out that just as the Bitcoin protocol is in its infancy, so is the technology behind tumblers. In the future, there likely will be decentralized tumblers that allow users to connect and mix their coins without any central server doing the mixing. It will be open source so that anyone can run it, and privately over VPNs/Tor. So an outright ban may discourage law abiding companies/citizens from benefiting from the technology, but it would still be used easily for the more nefarious purposes. The decentralization of applications is going to have a bigger effect than just on money transmission, and regulations surrounding this type of technology may be interpreted as the "regulation of source code" in the future (which would be a nightmare for us developers). Thanks for your time!

BenLawsky11 karma

Thanks. Very interesting point. We'll consider it further.

TeamCoinMKT24 karma

Hi Mr. Lawsky, thanks for doing this AMA:

How do you plan on balancing the need for regulatory framework with allowing entrepreneurship within the digital currency space to flourish?

Thanks, CoinMKT.

BenLawsky20 karma

That's the million dollar question we wrestle with everyday.

fouadjeryes23 karma

What are your views on the adoption and potential for Bitcoin to make financial service leaps in the developing world? How do you think we can get our local central banking authorities to see BTC in a light that is more opportunistic than threatening?

I live in the Middle East & North African region where the majority of individuals sport a cash-based mentality and 67% of the population (500M+) are un-banked. BTC can change it all.

BenLawsky30 karma

I think this is an extremely exciting aspect of Bitcoin that holds huge potential. Many people don't realize how so many parts of our world do not have modern banking systems.

Separately, Bitcoin holds the potential to bring the costs of international transactions way down. That could be huge for the thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who today send money back to their families in their home countries at great expense.

coastermonger17 karma

/u/BenLawsky, it is my sincere hope that whatever regulation you envision is both simple and effective.

The very real danger of unintended consequences in this matter is the risk of creating an unnecessary regulatory burden.

If the bar is set so high that the amount of red tape and upfront cost needed to comply is insurmountable, then I fear businesses, customers, and innovation itself will be pushed elsewhere.

BenLawsky13 karma

We hear you and get it.

Reddit082914 karma

Mr. Lawsky,

Thank you for joining us here. As a Bitcoin user, I truly appreciate your concept of Open Source Regulation, and I think there is a lot for both the Bitcoin community and regulators to learn here.

I have a couple simple questions for you:

  1. Do you believe that Bitcoin, or the underlying technology, will change the world for the better?

  2. Do you want to see Bitcoin, or the underlying technology succeed? In your experience, do most of your peers share this stance, or is the general perspective much more bleak?

BenLawsky42 karma

  1. I think Bitcoin or the underlying technology has a lot of potential on numerous levels. As Professor Athey said at our hearings, even the experts don't know today how the technology will evolve and what it will ultimately look like. But I do think it holds a lot of promise (if money laundering can be adequately addressed), both on its own and in terms of causing existing payments system technologies to up their game. I've personally evolved a lot on the issue the more I have learned. I wouldn't compare it to a Rocky-IV-final-scene about-face and it has taken time for all of us at DFS to get our minds around it, but certainly our views have changed.

RedsforMeds13 karma

Hello Mr. Lawsky,

Why does cryptocurrency require regulation? What risks are there in an unregulated market that would otherwise not exist in a regulated one?

Thanks for your time.

BenLawsky11 karma

See my comments please to some of the other questions about the very real dangers money laundering presents both at banks and in the virtual currency world. Hope that answers your question.

TATInvestments12 karma

Have you ever considered fixing your computer desk setup? It must be murder on you to have no legroom and monitors lower than your nose!

BenLawsky13 karma

Ha! Good advice. Need to focus more on ergonomics I guess.

anaglyphic12 karma

I'm concerned about the bias you bring to the table related to your previous career in law enforcement. If I spent years fighting against money laundering I'd think it was the absolute evil, to be fought at all costs. I'm glad you're seeking outside opinions. I just hope you use them rather than falling back on that bias. There's a bigger picture here that you'd otherwise miss.

BenLawsky5 karma

I hear you and I think it is important for all of us to understand the potential biases and perspectives we all bring to the table based on our prior experiences. I certainly feel very strongly about the dangers and impacts of money laundering. But we also see the potential that virtual currencies may hold and the great innovations we may see in the future. I actually think that working hard to mitigate money laundering in the virtual currency industry will in the long run certainly benefit the industry both reputationally and practically.

pewWOWpew11 karma

Canada has already gone through the regulatory process with cryptocurrency, and it has set up an ideal model in my opinion.

I have a question, is it possible that the US will set up rules similar to Canada, where the main requirements are around security of the depositing institutions (the major Canadian one being the Vault of Satoshi)? Also is it possible for there to be an agreement with Canada that regulations are at least very close to each other so an international conflict of laws can be avoided there, especially for those of us who have been actively engaged in the Canadian regulatory environment for cryptocurrency?

I know this is about striking the right balance for you as a regulatory agency. I am open to reasonable regulation as long as cryptocurrencies are permitted. Canada has obviously struck a balance many of us who own, trade, and mine cryptocurrency can agree with, Russia has gone a direction that bothers many of us who are actively involved with. I am not against reasonable regulation, as it can protect those who deal in the market. It's just an authoritarian model such as Russia's which scares many of us. Many of us wish to use cryptocurrency for legitimate means, like internet tipping, cryptocurrency trading, and purchase of legitimate goods and services. I rather this be done in the daylight of a reasonable regulatory environment than a completely underground economy. I am hoping that the regulatory environment is one which allows the market for cryptocurrency to be mostly free. Additionally California has likewise moved in a positive direction recently as well.

BenLawsky31 karma

Thanks. We'll take a closer look at what Canada is doing. In my experience, originality is sometimes overrated and we should always be trying to learn from those who appear to be getting it right (and learn lessons from those who are getting it wrong).

zooitjezooitje10 karma

What is your advice to colleague regulators overseas (I live in Europe)?

BenLawsky13 karma

It's not really my place to give advice to other regulators. But certainly for DFS it has been worth taking the time to really study the industry and understand not only potential negatives but also the very real potential positives of virtual currencies.