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Contract management: could the Bitcoin - with its shady past - show up on your desk?

Published: 24 Jul 2014 Average Rating: 4.5 / 5 Print
 
This article appeared in Contracting Excellence magazine on 24 Jul 2014 view edition
 

Author: Ashish Chandra, Senior Attorney, Media, Broadcasting, Internet, Tech, Telecom & Sports

That digital, virtual currency (or commodity) not issued by any government, bank or central organization - commonly known as a Bitcoin - is best known for illegal use. Yet, it's more popular than ever! Is it here to stay? If it appears in your contracting world, what must you know now?

Author Ashish Chandra put the stethoscope on the Bitcoin and its effect on the global community – and found it alive and finding its feet!  He discovered some interesting implications commercial and contract managers need to know about if and when it becomes a contracting issue.

IMPLICATIONS FOR CONTRACTING

The Bitcoin payment option would pose several head scratchers for contract professionals.  You will need to consider several things, including…

  • Ensure it is actually legal in your jurisdiction
    This is the first question parties must consider before including Bitcoin in the contract.
  • It's legal today – but may not be tomorrow!
    Most countries that have not specifically banned Bitcoins have taken a “wait and watch” approach. A real risk could be that even if it's valid the day you make your Bitcoin exchange or sign your contract agreement, it may not be the day payment is due. So you would need to ensure suitable provisions are included in the contract to ensure future payment obligations of the parties are protected should Bitcoin subsequently be declared illegal.
  • Could a Bitcoin contract end up being taxed twice?
    Because Bitcoins have not been declared “fiat currency” in any country  - and in some they're considered either as “property” or a “payment service” - any commercial contract providing for payment of consideration through Bitcoins could be subject to dual taxation ie the subject matter of the contract could also be liable to taxation:
    • direct tax on the income arising pursuant to the contract and indirect tax (eg VAT/GST etc) on the goods/services sold under the contract) and
    • taxation on the exchange of Bitcoin either as property or as a payment service.
  • Beware of falling foul of money laundering laws
    In jurisdictions where Bitcoins are not specifically banned, you would need to take extra care to comply with “Know Your Customer” (KYC), anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist finance laws. This would become even more important where the contract is being signed by a “paper” company in a tax or other legal-friendly jurisdiction. Necessary due-diligence, information requirements, representations, indemnities and corporate guarantees should also be considered carefully in these cases.
  • Take foreign exchange laws seriously
    In jurisdictions where payments for international trades are controlled through foreign exchange laws (e.g. the Foreign Exchange Management Act 1999 in India), you would need to comply with such laws when agreeing to provide for Bitcoins as a mode of payment of consideration under a contract.
  • Can we protect against highly volatile exchange rates?
    “Hedging” the conversion rate risks may be the best way, depending on the period of holding of Bitcoins. A new form of hedging or derivative contract would be required for each jurisdiction depending upon how that country treats the Bitcoin (i.e. as currency, security, property or as a service). As per the recent news, Tera Group Inc., a New Jersey based company, has created a framework for buying and selling swaps linked to Bitcoins that would let investors hedge risk from trading in digital currency.

Bitcoin - more viable than volatile

The real culprit is misuse, not the currency itself.  True, Bitcoins have generated unprecedented volatility in exchange rates; precipitated the collapse of big Bitcoin exchanges; caused a few promoters to get arrested for several illegal Bitcoin exchanges and spawned other harmful developments. Notwithstanding, the Bitcoin is proving to be a viable substitute for the fiat currency exchanged for trading goods and services in the virtual world.

Few developed countries have fully legitimized Bitcoins. Nevertheless, as Bitcoins gain user acceptability and exchange rates stabilize, they will increasingly gain recognition from governments worldwide, and slowly become an option for payments under commercial contracts.

BITCOIN BASICS - keeping it simple

  • Bitcoin is a digital currency in which transactions can be performed without the need for a central bank.
  • Bitcoins have no physical existence beyond an on-line public “ledger', known as the “Blockchain,” where all transactions are recorded.
  • When you buy a Bitcoin, it is allocated to your digital “wallet.”
  • The Blockchain (online ledger) registers all Bitcoin transactions, including their initial creation such as, which digital user first bought them, who since bought and sold them and who now has them in their digital wallet3 (Bitcoin account). It therefore serves as a public record of the chain of custody of all Bitcoins.

For the technically minded, Bitcoins are based on an open source, math-based protocol existing on an online, peer-to-peer computer network that hosts the Blockchain (Public transaction ledger).2

You may access your Bitcoin digital wallet and use it to receive or send Bitcoins through a digital address together with a public key and private key that are part of the Bitcoin Network's cryptographic security mechanism.

How can you get Bitcoins?

Mining

Using a “goldrush” metaphor, one way of getting Bitcoin in your digital wallet is by “mining” them through cracking algorithms. It's like a reward to the miner for having solved the math-based algorithm, a game of skill, not chance.

The number of Bitcoins in existence will never exceed 21 million.  This controlled supply of 21 million Bitcoins multiplied by its smallest unit can create 21 trillion Bitcoin units…

Trading

You can receive Bitcoin in your digital wallet through peer-to-peer transfer or when a seller of goods or services (virtual or actual) receives Bitcoins from the buyer as sale consideration.

Currency exchange

You can buy Bitcoin through exchange of a fiat currency. The currency denominations are “BTC” or “XBT”.  Currently 1 BTC = ~640 US$. In late 2013, the virtual currency traded for over $1,100 per Bitcoin before dropping precipitously. Bitcoins are easily divisible as the smallest unit of the currency is one-hundred-millionth of a Bitcoin.

Bitcoin growth

The Blockchain reflects usage of Bitcoins within past years to the present. Please click on the links below to view line graphs showing how the Bitcoin has been progressing: 

Bitcoins can benefit the economy

  • Bitcoins can never be counterfeited.
  • Bitcoin Exchanges record all transaction data about all trades of each Bitcoin and this data is publicly available. The creator, transferor or transferee of Bitcoin may remain anonymous but all exchanges of Bitcoins are public information.
  • Bitcoin can be used by people who have access to internet but are not bankable i.e. don't have bank account or credit cards.
  • Bitcoin payment processing is far cheaper than the processing or transaction fees presently charged by the existing payment gateways (or sometimes NIL). This could potentially reduce the price of goods and services which can be traded online.
  • Being a global virtual currency, Bitcoins are immune to exchange rate fluctuation of a typical fiat currency which depends upon the economic status of its sponsored country.
  • Payment for cross border trade can be more hassle free and cheaper, which is a great incentive for global ecommerce … and one can use Bitcoin to buy on eBay / Amazon on Cyber Monday!!

Regulatory issues

Lately, various governments have been attempting to regulate Bitcoins either by…

  1. declaring them specifically as property or service and accordingly issued appropriate tax advisories on taxability for mining and trading in Bitcoins (for example: Australia, US, Canada, Singapore, Brazil, Germany); or
  2. keeping a hands-off approach i.e. neither deliberately banning it nor specifically regulating it but keeping them under watch or observation with risk advisory to its citizens (for example: Hong Kong, India, Taiwan); or
  3. banning the same (for example: China).

Items a. and c. are objective and clear however b. is ambiguous and the Bitcoin industry appears to be skeptical about doing business in those countries, because they are not sure what category Bitcoin will fall into and what would be the tax impact (if at all Bitcoins are specifically made legal) or whether their business could be shut and they could face criminal trials.

Because Bitcoins are positioned as currency for the virtual world, Bitcoin enthusiasts and entrepreneurs could use this regulatory arbitrage in their favor and set up shops in regulatory and tax-friendly jurisdictions.

Regular currency and Bitcoin compared

The recent extreme volatility in the exchange rate of Bitcoins has given shivers to financial and securities regulators the world over. The real Bitcoin damage started when The Silk Route used Bitcoins to trade illegal drugs while hiding the identity of the payer and payee. Hacking into the private keys of Bitcoins (stealing Bitcoins from digital wallets) also occurred.

Some believe regular currency or other commodities are not better, supporting their view with examples like the following, all of which exist in the real world with real currency and other commodities:

  • The uncontrolled surge in oil, gold, property prices and sudden slump in 2008;
  • Billions of dollars exchanged by the underworld and used for terrorist financing;
  • Recent political agendas of various governments to bring unaccounted wealth back home from offshore havens; and
  • Bank account hacking, Nigerian frauds, credit card frauds and phishing scams.

What is the outlook for Bitcoin?

Fraud will always threaten innocent people. Bitcoin is money, and money has always been used both for legal and illegal purposes. The Bitcoin wasn't really developed to replace fiat currency. It is here to stay in the long run and governments need to frame uniform and flexible regulations to enable the Bitcoin to develop as a payment currency for the virtual world. They need to quickly adopt a balancing approach to cater to the payment system needs of this community.  Currency is not the problem: we are - unless we are watchful, aware and operate with integrity. 

Next steps – my further thoughts

  • We must immediately check the volatility, blatant abuse by money launderers and technical compatibility and interoperability for world-wide acceptance.
  • Apart from framing enabling regulations, the international standards-setting body for payment industry and internet should frame and adopt standards for worldwide uniform adaptability of Bitcoin and protocols for mining and running the exchanges.
  • We must find flexible and innovative means to comply with KYC/AML regulations. One way could be to link the IP address under the new IPv6 regime to an individual or organization against proper KYC and such IP address to be recorded at the Blockchain.

END NOTES

1.  Bitcoin - definition (See also Wiki definition of a block chain.)

2.  Blockchain home page

3.  Free Bitcoin wallet

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are my personal views and are neither subscribed to nor endorsed by author's present or previous employers. The author doesn't own or trade in any Bitcoin. Comments welcome at ashish1109@gmail.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashish Chandra is Vice President & Head Legal (Media & Technology) with Reliance Industries Limited (a Fortune 200 and India's largest private sector company). Ashish spends most of his time in advising Reliance for the launch of Reliance Jio 4G network and related services in the areas of entertainment, mobile payments, cloud computing and ecommerce. Prior to joining Reliance, Ashish worked with major US multinationals like News Corporation, eBay / Paypal and NCR Corporation. Ashish is a qualified company secretary, law graduate from University of Delhi and specialized diploma holder in Information Technology laws and IPR laws. Ashish is a regular industry speaker at various legal and industry conferences on Media, Broadcasting, Internet, Technology and Telecom.

 
 
 

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