Molly White, a prominent critic of cryptocurrency, is having an I-told-you-so moment as Sam Bankman-Fried goes on trial next week for fraud in connection with the collapse of his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX. But White isn’t gloating.
She expects the New York federal court case — regardless of outcome — to have little impact on the trajectory of cryptocurrency, which has proved resilient despite plunges in value and scandals like FTX. The speculative investment climbs, falls, and rises again as it remains “prone to these cycles of enormous hype,” she said.
“I don’t think a case like this will force any change,” White said.
White, a graduate of Northeastern University and fellow at the Harvard University’s Library Innovation Lab, is the creator of the sarcastically named blog “Web3 Is Going Just Great,” which tracks the twists and turns of the cryptocurrency market. She is this week’s guest of the podcast “Say More,” hosted by Globe columnist Shirley Leung. Listen at globe.com/saymore and wherever you find your podcasts.
Cryptocurrency first gained notoriety as an untraceable way to pay for drugs and other illegal products in online dark-web marketplaces such as the the infamous Silk Road. Led by Bitcoin, cryptocurrency moved into the mainstream, attracting investors, speculators, and crypto miners employing massive computing power to create currencies based on blockchain technology, a complex and secure digital ledger. People cashing in loose change at coin-counting machines even have the option of getting paid in Bitcoin rather than dollar bills.
While critics have likened cryptocurrencies to Ponzi schemes, backers tend to dismiss implosions as the aberrations caused by corrupt individuals or the “failure of centralization” rather than blame the industry itself, said White.
Many investors are attracted to cryptocurrencies because they are lightly regulated, said White. They see it as a way to make quick money without encountering the maze of rules governing traditional finance and believe that cryptocurrency industry can regulate itself, White said.
“The crypto industry is prone to techno-solutionism, which is really saying that we can solve any problem with technology,” White said. “It’s naïve, and I think that we really need to address the fact that a lot of these problems that exist in the world are really societal policy problems that technology can sometimes help to address, but is rarely the fix.”
The United States has made some attempts to regulate cryptocurrencies such as stablecoins, whose values are tied to the dollar and maintain the same price. The European Union also attempted to regulate crypto using existing securities laws.
If any changes result from rom FTX collapse and the Bankman-Fried trial, they might come in the oversight of cryptocurrencies, White said.
“Where I do think there might be impact,” she said, “is the extent to which lawmakers observe this case, understand the types of things that went wrong, and perhaps step in to try to keep it from happening again in the regulatory sense.”
In response to scandals like FTX, more players in cryptocurrency are embracing regulation, but White said she remains wary. “To me, [it’s] a sign that it is maybe perhaps not as stringent as it ought to be,” she said.
White concedes that cryptocurrencies are probably here to stay, but their prospects will diminish.
“I could see a future in which the promises of crypto to replace the financial industry have largely fallen by the wayside,” White said. “But people still enjoy speculating on the price of a crypto asset that is appropriately regulated in the same way that the gambling industry might be regulated.”