This opinion piece was written by Roy Keidar and Yuval Shalheveth of Israeli law firm Yigal Arnon and Co with the assistance of Ahuva Goldstand.

In the article, the authors argue that the Israeli financial industry could be poised to take a global lead on blockchain tech.

Israeli flag

The general consensus is that there is huge potential in blockchain technology. Some say it may be as big as the Internet itself, doing for transactions of value what the former has done for transfers of information.

Blockchain could completely alter traditional industries, changing the face of financial transactions, legal contracts, verification mechanisms and even voting procedures. Where consensus is lacking, there possibly lie the future steps of blockchain.

What can we expect to see next? Our hunch: we are entering the phase of the institutionalization of blockchain, and it will be led by the financial system. Yes, by the banks.

The potential advantages to using blockchain are obvious. Most significant is the ability to remove the middleman, and allow for faster, cheaper and more secure transactions. This could prove to be economically beneficial to the financial system which facilitates billions of transactions every day.

No less important is the advantage it provides for developing countries, where trust in the authorities is relatively low, and especially for those which suffer from high levels of corruption. There, people are looking for different ways to realize their civil liberties, including voting, identity verification, registering land ownership, etc. Blockchain technology – direct, decentralized, and secure – provides a potentially unprecedented and private alternative to these.

Early adoptor

Arguably one of the most vibrant blockchain industries currently is in Israel. A combination of expertise in cryptography and Big Data gained in the world of security and defense, combined with a passionate and talented entrepreneurial ecosystem has led a growing number of companies to lead the way to the next big thing in the blockchain domain.

These companies include startups like Synereo (a decentralized communication platform), Simplex (a payments service working on enabling bitcoin purchases with credit cards), Colu (Colored Coins).

Yet, careful observation of the Israeli ecosystem shows that it comprises much more than early-stage startups. Major Israeli financial institutions, perhaps lacking the sheer magnitude and market share of their American and European counterparts, are showing increasing interest in various applications being developed by these younger companies.

Several banks (such as Bank Hapoalim, Leumi and Citi Bank) have launched accelerators with infrastructure designated to support early-stage initiatives. They offer much-needed funding, technical support and the opportunity to interact and collaborate with the banking system. This synergy could prove to be extremely valuable, as one of the major hurdles facing entrepreneurs in the field is developing products and solutions that could be adapted for, and used by, the highly conservative, heavily regulated environment such as that in which the banking system operates.

In addition, more investors are being drawn into the industry, incentivizing promising ventures and adding fuel to the growing excitement and expectations surrounding the field. Recently, we're also seeing increased involvement of lawyers and accountants in the sphere, discussing implications and working with their clients on some of the challenges associated with blockchain.

Regulation driven

One cannot ignore the resemblance between the current growth in the industry and the evolution of the Israeli cyber industry roughly a decade ago. What began as a small group of cyber startups soon became a deluge of hundreds of companies, providing innovative technology and multi-tier services around the globe. Similar, but not the same. Unlike the cyber industry, the blockchain industry is lacking crucial tail-wind from the regulator.

Almost two decades ago, the Israeli regulator came to the understanding that cyber was becoming a major new front. The main driver was the concern surrounding cyber-attacks on critical national infrastructure and security installations. The sharpest minds from the Israeli defense industry convened to discuss a national realignment to ensure Israel's ability to confront future challenges.

Eventually the government adapted a combined approach, emphasizing the development of human talent, investment in technology, building institutions, allocating funding and providing a regulatory environment that allowed the industry to thrive. All together this has led to an unprecedented boost to the Israeli cyber industry, a push that Israel is still reaping benefits from to this day.

This is not yet the case with blockchain. Regulators worldwide remain skeptical of virtual coins that circumvent banks and government authorities, and seem prone to criminal exploitations. We've seen that SilkRoad, Mt Gox and the recent Bitfinex scandal has not done anything to defuse this stereotype.

But resistance may be more deeply rooted than mere concerns over criminal misuse and consumer protection: a decentralized alternative to centuries-old systems of centralized governance and control is not something any regulator will be able to swallow too easily. Likewise, Israeli regulators are still 'sitting on the fence'. Given that both future uses, and implications of blockchain, are unpredictable, this is to be expected.

However, the regulator provides an indispensable support system, including supervision mechanisms and an appropriate legal framework. Such regulatory backing can bolster consumer awareness, understanding and confidence in the new technology and accommodate the move of blockchain from fringe to mainstream. But who will lead the charge?

Meeting of worlds

Various businesses worldwide are already beginning to take note of the potential economic value in using blockchain technology in myriad applications. And as competition grows, an even larger circle is beginning to feel the pressure to follow suit. Although the movement is certainly expanding, this grassroots growth may not suffice to live up to the disruptive potential of blockchain. This is where the big banks come in.

Looking back at the major developments over the past year, there is no doubt that the ripest industry for blockchain is the financial system. The big financial institutions would have the most to gain – or lose.

It is, however, the most highly regulated industry. Therefore, authorities need to deepen their engagement with the various applications of the technology with the aim of creating an appropriate regulatory framework applicable for the technology, whilst increasing consumer confidence, but without undermining the economic model of the financial system.

And who is best qualified for that role if not the financial system itself? It has both the knowledge and capacity to conduct meaningful dialogue with the regulator on the one hand, and the economic incentive to cut down costs by using blockchain on the other. If that happens, we could soon find ourselves in an era of institutionalized blockchain, where cutting-edge technology meets conservative infrastructure to generate a wholly new and fascinating system.

Israeli flag image via Shutterstock

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