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Media Lab Director Joi Ito Wants MIT to Lead the Bitcoin Ecosystem

Op-ed - Media Lab Director Joi Ito Wants MIT to Lead the Bitcoin Ecosystem

Joi Ito, director of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, is about to unveil a plan for the Institute to become what he calls an independent, neutral home to help with Bitcoin standards development, Xconomyreports.

Ito has been prominently involved in the development of the Internet from the very beginning, from helping start the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan to investing in Twitter and helping bring it to Japan. A former CEO of Creative Commons , Ito also has served on the boards of the Open Source Initiative, ICANN, The Mozilla Foundation, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

In collaboration with other high profile MIT experts such as economist Simon Johnson and cryptographer Ron Rivest, Ito plans for MIT to become a non-commercial, neutral place for academics to talk about Bitcoin.

“I think within a couple of weeks we’ll be announcing something which will be a little bit more substantive,” says Ito. “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.”

The Bitcoin ecosystem doesn’t have a central governing body, but the Bitcoin Foundation probably is the closest thing. However, the short history of the foundation has been troubled by rumors and scandals, and there has been opposition to the foundation’s leadership in the Bitcoin community. Recently, Bitcoin Foundation board member Olivier Janssens wrote that the foundation had been undermined by “two years of ridiculous spending and poorly thought-out decisions” and was “effectively bankrupt.”

In view of the troubled history of the Bitcoin Foundation, which is now considering splitting into two separate organizations for promotional activities and core development funding, it seems likely that the Bitcoin community as a whole could welcome MIT as a more suitable, prestigious venue for leadership and coordination of the Bitcoin ecosystem.

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

Ito published his first Bitcoin essay in January. In the essay, titled “Why Bitcoin is and isn’t like the Internet ,” he explores parallels, similarity and differences between the history of Bitcoin, the new digital currency of the Internet, and the history of the Internet itself. An important difference is that the financial establishment, which mostly left the Internet alone at the beginning, has been substantially involved in the early development of cryptocurrencies.

Ito summarizes this point for Xconomy:

“With Bitcoin, it was sort of on the Internet, but the financial interests got very involved before there was a lot of standards-setting,” he says. “It’s going at hyperspeed, much faster than any other standards body. And you have the added problem that there’s a lot of money involved. “

Before the Xconomy interview, Ito outlined his developing plans at the MIT Bitcoin Expo 2015 in March. He thinks MIT could and should provide a neutral and prestigious academic home for the development of blockchain standards, technologies and best practices, independent of the powerful commercial and regulatory interests that are forming around the emerging digital economy.

The full video recordings of the MIT Bitcoin Expo 2015 are available online. Ito’s talk starts at about 2 hours and 45 minutes in this video.
Headshot by Joi Ito / CC BY 2.0, MIT Media Lab photo by the Knight Foundation / CC BY-SA 2.0