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US seizes top Bitcoin exchange as crackdown begins

Published time: May 15, 2013 22:25
Edited time: May 17, 2013 09:35
AFP Photo / George Frey

AFP Photo / George Frey

The US Department of Homeland Security seized a payment processing account Tuesday belonging to Mt. Gox, the largest international Bitcoin trader, claiming the monetary exchange service falsified financial documents.

The American government has previously made it clear that officials are watching Bitcoin, a decentralized economic currency that international regulators have not yet been able to control. Many of those who favor Bitcoin use Dwolla, an Iowa-based startup that allows customers to transfer their dollars into Bitcoins. 

Unfortunately for those consumers, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warrant Tuesday effectively shutting down Dwolla’s ability to process Bitcoin payments, as reported by CNET. Whether because of the DHS’ charge of operating an “unlicensed money transmitting business,” the sudden timing of the allegations, or another reason, Dwolla and Mt. Gox officials have been reluctant to comment. 

In order not to compromise this ongoing investigation being conducted by ICE Homeland Security Investigations Baltimore, we cannot comment beyond the information in warrant, which was filed in the District of Maryland [Tuesday],” said Nicole Navas, a representative for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

The warrant claims Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles did not disclose he operated a financial transfer site when he opened a new bank account for the business. Money transmitting services, according to Gawker, are required to register with the Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen). Mt. Gox, which is involved in roughly 63 per cent of all Bitcoin purchases, has not done so.

AFP Photo / George Frey

Despite the technicalities skeptics are wondering if Bitcoin’s friction with the Treasury department is the cause of this recent scrutiny. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said the anonymity afforded by the service provided an “online form of money laundering” and campaigned for its downfall. 

Literally, it allows buyers and users to sell illegal drugs online, including heroin, cocaine, and meth, and users do sell by hiding their identity through a program that makes them virtually untraceable,” Schumer said during a 2011 news conference. “It’s a certifiable one-stop shop for illegal drugs that represents the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen. It’s more brazen than anything else by light years.” 

Most notably, proponents have asserted that Bitcoin would be impermeable in instances where WikiLeaks, for example, saw its funding evaporate as the federal government pressured PayPal to cut off the whistleblower site’s support network. Bitcoin would be more resistant to a crackdown of that nature. 

Jerry Brito, a scholar at the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told the Washington Post Bitcoin could reduce the cost of financial services by pioneering new business formats. 

Bitcoin has the potential to be a boon to the economy and a boon to merchants,” he said, adding that it could “disrupt traditional payment networks that have not been innovative for a very long time.”

A blind governmental crackdown would only serve to push Bitcoin further underground, Brito argued. 

You can’t put the genie back into the bottle,” he continued. “I hate to say it, but the Bitcoin community needs to start lobbying. It needs to start educating policymakers, lobbyists and influencers about the pros of Bitcoin and the impossibility or the difficulty in getting rid of all the bad uses.”