Joi Ito Wants MIT to Be Neutral Place to Help Develop Bitcoin Standards

Bitcoins have an uncertain path forward with the seeming implosion of the Bitcoin Foundation last weekend. But PayPal merchants and even presidential candidate Rand Paul have started accepting them as payment. That means the race is on to establish technical standards for the virtual currency—and it looks like MIT could end up playing a role.

Joi Ito, famed director of the MIT Media Lab and a student of Bitcoins (see this long blog post he wrote in January comparing Bitcoins to the Internet), is close to unveiling a plan for the Institute to become what he calls an independent, neutral home to help with Bitcoin standards development. He is talking to some big MIT names to help with the plan, including cryptographer Ron Rivest of RSA Security fame and economist Simon Johnson, and says he expects to make a public announcement about the effort in the near future.

Joi ItoI met earlier this week with Ito, who has directed the Media Lab since the fall of 2011, for a short but wide-ranging interview. I plan to post more of our conversation next week, but one of the most interesting elements had to do with Bitcoins and alternative currencies. Ito did not reveal his plans in detail, but did share some core thoughts. He says the only other public mention of the idea came in a talk he gave at a Bitcoin Expo at MIT in March.

Jerry Brito, executive director of the non-profit Coin Center, a research and advocacy center focused on cryptocurrencies, tweeted at the time:

At #MITBTC15 @Joi proposes academic takeover of core development and governance? Semi-announces an MIT-led org.

Ito told me he got further stimulus for the idea from the fresh turmoil at the Bitcoin Foundation sparked by an April 4 forum post from board member Olivier Janssens. In the post, Janssens wrote that the non-profit foundation had been undermined by “2 years of ridiculous spending and poorly thought out decisions” and was “effectively bankrupt.”

As described by the International Business Times, the Bitcoin Foundation doesn’t oversee Bitcoins but is “the closest thing to a public face that the community has” and has been leading efforts to develop standards for the cryptocurrency and spur its adoption.

Ito thinks MIT might be a better venue to help develop those standards, or at least advance the discussion. He says the Janssens post pointed to a glaring hole in Bitcoin development—and that is that the protocols need to be developed in a neutral place, such as what happened with Internet standards.

“With Bitcoin, it was sort of on the Internet, but the financial interests got very involved before there was a lot of standards setting,” Ito says. “It’s going at hyper-speed, much faster than any other standards body. And you have the added problem that there’s a lot of money involved. Even the developers have lots of Bitcoin, right? What I’d like to do as a contribution from MIT—and this is one of my first forays into going Institute-wide from the beginning, by bringing Simon Johnson for the economics and Ron Rivest for the crypto—is to try to come up with a non-commercial, neutral place for academics to talk about Bitcoin.”

The Media Lab director says he has been moving fast since Janssens’s post. “I think within a couple of weeks we’ll be announcing something which will be a little bit more substantive. And I’m not pushing it, but I’m offering MIT as a neutral academic home for some of the conversations and the technical coordination. Which I think will give a lot more stability to Bitcoin, which right now is a little bit fragile.”

Ito stressed in our conversation and in a follow-up e-mail that he is not trying to grab control of Bitcoin efforts or be an overlord of sorts—rather, he is trying to “make ‘space’ for technical and standards conversations.”

“What I’m really trying to do is offer us as one of the neutral places to do this,” he says. “And I do think academia plays a role.”


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