Bitcoin Is Free Speech—Why Jamie Dimon Was Wrong and Governments Can Never ‘Close It Down:’ New at Reason

"[Governments] like to the control the currency," J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon said at a September 12 financial service conference, when asked why he thinks bitcoin is a "fraud."

"They control it through a central bank...the bigger these things get...they close it down."

Bitcoin enthusiasts were quick to point out that bitcoin can't be shut down because it doesn't have a CEO or corporate headquarters. It's a software network that runs on computers spread around the globe, so any efforts to close it down would resemble a game of wack-a-mole.

Here's the other point Jamie Dimon doesn't understand: Bitcoin is also free speech. And though other countries could ban it, it can't be made illegal in the U.S. thanks to the First Amendment. That's because bitcoin is just code, and code is just speech, which is based on legal precedent established during the so-called crypto wars of the early 90s.

In 1993, Phil Zimmerman faced possible criminal charges for writing the encryption software PGP. The government said that it was as dangerous as guns and bombs. To make the point that PGP's source code is protected speech, MIT Press printed it in a book, sold it abroad, and Zimmerman was never indicted.

Then in 1995, with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, mathematician Daniel Bernstein sued the U.S. government on First Amendment grounds for blocking publication of his encryption program.

"Computer language is just that, language," wrote Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit Court affirmed Patel's ruling that code has the same constitutional protections as a poem or newspaper article.

The First Amendment protects users who keep their own bitcoins printed on a sheet of paper or stored in a software wallet, but it doesn't preclude regulatory regimes like the New York BitLicense, which constrains the activities of third-party companies that maintain other people's crypto holdings. But these firms are a vestige of the old-world financial system.

If the world transitions from a dollar standard to a bitcoin standard, by then, software will have made it easier for users to maintain and trade their own cryptocurrency without involving a regulated company. And those activities have the same constitutional protections as other forms of controversial speech.

That money can now be expressed in strings of numbers and letters that don't require a government-sanctioned bank to declare them valid poses a mortal threat to the existing financial industry. Is it any wonder that the CEO of the world's sixth largest bank wants to believe that the government can step in and offer protection?

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