An Offshore Tax Haven Plans to Become the World's First Bitcoin Island

Jersey is already well known for its financial services, and a new campaign wants to see it at the forefront of cryptocurrencies.

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Jun 23 2014, 6:40pm
Image: Oligo/Shutterstock

While many places around the world want nothing to do with Bitcoin, some locales are trying hard to make the cryptocurrency happen, not just in the murky international waters of cyberspace or the confines of a student-fuelled experiment, but as a real local alternative to fiat currency. The latest to throw its hat in the ring is the island of Jersey, or as some now hope it to be known as, the world’s first “Bitcoin Isle.”

A campaign has launched to push the island to the forefront of Bitcoin adoption. “Obviously Jersey’s a well-known finance jurisdiction and there’s been a movement to try to build secondary industries around this,” Robbie Andrews, cofounder of bit.coin.je, told me. He said that when looking to marry the finance and IT sectors, cryptocurrencies were an obvious area of interest. “It seems like if you’re going to pick one tech that fits between the digital space and the finance space: cryptocurrency.”

Like similar projects, Bit.coin.je aims to educate local residents, businesses, and government about Bitcoin. Jersey, an island off the coast of France, has a strong financial industry; it's considered by many to be a tax haven. While it’s a British Crown dependency, it’s not part of the UK or the EU and is self-governing—which could come in handy when trying to deal with the tricky issues of regulating virtual money. In this way it’s similar to the Isle of Man, which came out with some fighting Bitcoin talk of its own earlier this month. 

“My end goal is that I’d love for every Jersey business to be accepting Bitcoin as just another form of payment,” said Andrews. He thinks Jersey is well placed to be at the forefront of the cryptocurrency movement because it has good connections with the UK and European markets (though, perhaps crucially, without being part of them), and a good digital infrastructure in place.

At the moment, 12 businesses already listed on the site as accepting Bitcoin. It admittedly not a massive hub of crypto-action, but as the whole island has a population of less than 100,000, that level of engagement is not to be sniffed at. Andrews said a Bitcoin ATM is on its way in the next few weeks.

The biggest barrier in terms of making it feasible for businesses and individuals to use Bitcoin is to get a bank onboard. “Not many companies can be 100 percent Bitcoin or Litecoin or whatever crypto they’re in; at some point you’re going to need to either cash out to fiat or pay stockists or suppliers with fiat and you need a bank account for that,” explained Andrews. He thinks Jersey could be a good experimental ground for banks to trial initiatives in this space.

Entwined with that, however, is the issue of regulation, the current lack of which is a thorn in above-board Bitcoin businesses’ side (and the suggestion of which is a loathsome proposition to the cryptoanarchist crew). Established financial institutions are unlikely to move into the cryptocurrency space until they know where they stand with government. “The benefit of Jersey is that because we are self-governed, we could be leading with applying regulation in certain areas,” said Andrews. 

He said positive discussions are taking place, and Treasury Minister Senator Philip Ozouf has spoken out to the BBC about Jersey being an early leader in the field and “helping to create a well-regulated and responsive environment for investment in the sector.” 

There are obvious benefits for anywhere that gets into a sector first, but the knock-on effect of somewhere taking this kind of step could also help validate the idea of Bitcoin elsewhere. Industry confidence would benefit if a jurisdiction were “to stick it’s head above the parapet,” Andrews suggested.

It's early days, and for now the campaign can basically be taken as a statement of intent from some of Jersey’s business and tech community. It looks like the race to corner Bitcoin as an industry opportunity is on—and it’s currently floating off the coasts of the UK and France.

UPDATE 6/23: A spokesperson for bit.coin.je emailed to say the isle of Jersey has been working hard over the years to dispel the "tax haven" image, and prefers to be referred to as an international finance industry. Spokesperson Robbie Andrews informed me that, "In fact, we beat the UK in the IMF’s compliance with international financial regulations," and "the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] has also endorsed Jersey’s ongoing transparency in this matter."