When Peter Van Valkenburgh ’14 moved to New York City after high school to try his hand at an acting career, he taught himself web design to help pay the bills. “Getting into the web design world got me really into the internet, and ultimately into talking about building an open internet, building decentralized technologies and eventually the function of cryptocurrency,” he says.
Van Valkenburgh now serves as the director of research at Coin Center, a cryptocurrency advocacy thinktank that aims to “provide a source for just-the-facts, plain-English explanations as to how the technology works,” says Van Valkenburgh. “We think of ourselves as a digital civil liberties organization that actually represents the raw technology itself and the rights of people to use it and innovate with it,” he says.
Van Valkenburgh enrolled at NYU Law after going back to school to obtain a bachelors degree in economics from George Mason University. He points to his 2L summer, when he served as a Google Policy Fellow at the technology nonprofit TechFreedom, as laying the groundwork for understanding how to write policy position papers, which he says makes up a lot of his work at Coin Center.
In addition to researching and writing policy position papers, Van Valkenburgh says that Coin Center often testifies before policymakers and brief agencies, including the US Department of the Treasury and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to explain how the Center believes that cryptocurrencies impact issues like privacy, financial surveillance, innovation, and consumer and investor protections.
In this Q&A, Van Valkenburgh discusses how he came to be interested in this legal area and how NYU Law helped prepare him for the challenge of providing policy recommendations for an emerging technology.
How did you come to be interested in the law as a way to examine cryptocurrency?
I think that was a twofold decision. First, wanting to figure out the law for the internet and for decentralized computing systems, and then also wanting to figure out how to make things easier for people who were doing weird, creative things and found that the red tape was too extreme and prohibitive.
While I was earning my undergraduate degree at George Mason, I was also helping a few friends start a theater company called 1st Stage in the greater Washington, DC area. We ended up renovating an old furniture warehouse into a stage with seating for a few hundred people. The process was profoundly difficult, not because of construction and things like that, but because of permitting and local government issues. That process reminded me that there’s such a barrier to people who want to do something creative or to start a small business and that barrier is mostly legal and administrative.
How did you come to work at Coin Center?
I had actually accepted a position at TechFreedom when a mutual acquaintance of mine who had worked on technology policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason, called me up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be the director of research at a Bitcoin thinktank?’ The Coin Center hadn’t yet been formally created. And I think I laughed at him and said, ‘That's a ridiculous proposition!’ But, ultimately the opportunity to be one of the first people to work on cryptocurrency public policy issues with Jerry [Brito, Coin Center’s executive director]—who I knew, liked, and trusted—was too good to pass up.
At the time, in 2013 or so, no one really knew the legal implications of Bitcoin, and there was a huge demand from Congress and other agencies to learn about how this technology worked and what its implications were, especially from a legal standpoint. It was really exciting and is really exciting to help answer these questions about how brand-new technologies might impact rights. Is cryptocurrency an asset? Is it an expression of free speech? A lot of my work involves testifying before government agencies to help them answer some of these questions.
Are there any accomplishments that Coin Center has achieved that you feel particularly proud of?
[At Coin Center,] we’ve created sensible materials that were helpful to the SEC when they were first starting to look at the issue of their jurisdiction with respect to cryptocurrencies. And [we’ve] developed deep relationships with financial crimes divisions within the US Treasury, like the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, so that when they have questions, which are sometimes difficult questions about criminal usage of the tech, we can provide useful information.
Most recently, at the very end of the Trump administration, there was a very rushed midnight rulemaking from FinCEN and the Treasury gave us only 15 days to comment on the proposal. So that was my Christmas last year: while making pie and sitting by the tree, I was writing a full comment letter. And we, along with other organizations like us, were able to convince them that more time was needed to do a proper evaluation. That was a big victory where I felt like I was doing some of my best work. To respond to new policies and actually achieve a delay and a reconsideration of those policies is, I think, pretty great.
Is your career what you expected it would be when you were in Law School?
I would not claim that when I was at NYU, that I expected the crypto space, which I was learning about at the time, to evolve the way it did. It went in all kinds of directions that I didn’t expect and I was sort of riding that wave to come up with good policy. As it turned out, I’m at pretty much the first job I took out of Law School. I love my team and I couldn’t see myself ever leaving. If I was lucky enough to spend another 10 years or 20 years working with these people, I’d be one of the luckiest lawyers or law grads that I know.
When you began thinking about your legal career, you were interested in making things easier for people who had innovative ideas. How has your work at Coin Center helped you to do that?
I feel really lucky because I do think I’ve been able to do the exact thing I wanted to do with my law degree—even if while I was earning my degree, I wasn’t sure what that was going to be. It turned out not to be in the world of physical art, like theater, but in the world of strange digital self expression.
Take NFTs, for example, which are very weird from a copyright law perspective. They don’t confer any actual copyrights, but they’re certainly a sort of ground-up artistic movement. That’s pretty incredible. Artists who have maybe never before been able to find a good market for their creative work are finding that market now. All of this is happening on these open permission-less platforms like Ethereum and Bitcoin and things like that. I do think we were able to, in the very early days, lay the groundwork for sensible policy that allows this sort of expression to thrive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Posted January 24, 2022.