Bitcoin. Everybody’s talking about it. What’s true, and what’s hype? Perhaps the only thing that’s clear about Bitcoin is that it’s not going away anytime soon. Who am I to say? I’m not an economist; I’m a hacker, who has spent his career exploring and repairing large networks. And networks may very well be how the world works — financial, social, electronic, even physical.
I’m on neither “Team Bitcoin” nor “Team Global Financial System.” I’m on “Team Lets Fix This Thing.”
We do need another currency.
I’ll be blunt: Money’s gotten buggy. People who don’t realize this might be in high finance — indeed, we’ve gotten very good at moving the revenues of entire generations within a precise number of femtoseconds — but what if you’re just trying to buy a smoothie?
Bitcoin is the Internet, applied to Money.
I walked into a Jamba Juice recently, and was informed in no uncertain terms that if I attempted to use anything larger than a $20 bill, or if my credit card was demagnetized, no smoothie for me. (I can’t even imagine the blank look I’d have gotten if I’d tried to pay with a personal check.)
We do have credit cards. But credit cards change money from something anyone can give anyone (peer to peer) to something with a consumer class (client) and a merchant class (server). There are innovative startups that attempt to reverse that, and every time one of these systems pops up — Square, Stripe, Venmo — billions of dollars starts flowing through them.
We wouldn’t get this sort of growth without pent-up demand. But even the new systems find themselves failing — I love Paypal, but is there anyone who hasn’t either had their account suspended, or knows someone who has? I’ve certainly never had a $20 in my pocket go dark for 48 hours.
Bitcoin’s got its issues. But it is not competing with perfection.
The same people who brought you Wikileaks are back, and this time, they’ve created a virtual currency called Bitcoin that could destabilize the entire global financial system. Bitcoin is an open-source virtual currency generated by a computer algorithm that is completely beyond the reach of financial intermediaries, central banks and national tax collectors. Bitcoins could be used to purchase anything, at any time, from anyone in the world, in a transaction process that it is almost completely frictionless. Yes, that’s right, the hacktivists now have a virtual currency that’s untraceable, unhackable, and completely Anonymous.
And that’s where things start to get interesting. Veteran tech guru Jason Calacanis recently called Bitcoin the most dangerous open source project he’s ever seen. TIME suggested that Bitcoin might be able to bring national governments and global financial institutions to their knees. You see, Bitcoin is as much a political statement as it is a virtual currency. If you think there’s a shadow banking system now, wait a few more months. The political part is that, unlike other virtual currencies like Facebook Credits (used to buy virtual sock puppets for your friends), Bitcoins are globally transferrable across borders, making them the perfect instrument to finance any cause or any activity — even if it’s banned by a sovereign government.
You don’t need a banking or trading account to buy and trade Bitcoins - all you need is a laptop. They’re like bearer bonds combined with the uber-privacy of a Swiss bank account, mixed together with a hacker secret sauce that stores them as 1’s and 0’s on your computer. They’re “regulated” (to use the term lightly) by distributed computers around the world. Most significantly, Bitcoins can not be frozen or blocked or taxed or seized.
I’ve spent the past four years helping federal government agencies become more connected with citizens through social media. But even as Twitter usage has skyrocketed since 2008, the obvious question has nagged: Do citizens really want to become more connected to the government? I recently stumbled upon some answers by forming a subversive democratic experiment: the San Diego Burger Mob. Seriously.
For most people, dealing with the government is limited to transactions like applying for a driver’s license, paying taxes, or getting pulled over. Much beyond such necessary inconveniences, an interaction with the government is a sign that something has gone wrong. Nonetheless, many certainly do want to engage with the government. Countless students, activists, and otherwise enthusiastic citizens want to inform policy or otherwise improve how government works. The good news for these people is that social media is driving the cost of organizing to zero. In some cases, that’s bad news for government: Citizens are organizing on the Internet to supplant (Bitcoin) or frustrate (WikiLeaks) official institutions. Certainly, this is not the kind of connection my clients had in mind.
So what’s the point? Beyond simply making government more “social,” can the Internet actually improve policy or the quality of governance?
When the virtual currency bitcoin was released, in January 2009, it appeared to be an interesting way for people to trade among themselves in a secure, low-cost, and private fashion. The Bitcoin network, designed by an unknown programmer with the handle “Satoshi Nakamoto,” used a decentralized peer-to-peer system to verify transactions, which meant that people could exchange goods and services electronically, and anonymously, without having to rely on third parties like banks. Its medium of exchange, the bitcoin, was an invented currency that people could earn—or, in Bitcoin’s jargon, “mine”—by lending their computers’ resources to service the needs of the Bitcoin network. Once in existence, bitcoins could also be bought and sold for dollars or other currencies on online exchanges. The network seemed like a potentially useful supplement to existing monetary systems: it let people avoid the fees banks charge and take part in noncash transactions anonymously while still guaranteeing that transactions would be secure.
Yet over the past year and a half Bitcoin has become, for some, much more. Instead of a supplement to the dollar economy, it’s been trumpeted as a competitor, and promoters have conjured visions of markets where bitcoins are a dominant medium of exchange. The hyperbole is out of proportion with the more mundane reality. Tens of thousands of bitcoins are traded each day (some for goods and services, others in exchange for other currencies), and several hundred businesses, mostly in the digital world, now take bitcoins as payment. That’s good for a new monetary system, but it’s not disruptive growth. Still, the excitement is perhaps predictable. Setting aside Bitcoin’s cool factor—it might just as well have leapt off the pages of Neal Stephenson’s cult science-fiction novel Snow Crash—a peer-to-peer electronic currency uncontrolled by central bankers or politicians is a perfect object for the anxieties and enthusiasms of those frightened by the threats of inflation and currency debasement, concerned about state power and the surveillance state, and fascinated with the possibilities created by distributed, decentralized systems.
Bitcoin is not going to make government-backed currencies obsolete. But while the system’s virtues, such as anonymity and the lack of bank fees, may not matter much to most consumers, one can envision it being useful in a variety of niche markets (some legal, others not, like recreational drugs). Where anonymity is valuable, where trusted third parties are hard to find or charge high rates, and where persistently high inflation is a problem, it’s possible that bitcoins could in fact flourish as an alternative currency.
Before they become such an alternative, though, the system will have to overcome a major, and surprising, problem: people have come to see it primarily as a way to make money. In other words, instead of being used as a currency, bitcoins are today mostly seen as (and traded as) an investment. There’s a good reason for that: as people learned about Bitcoin, the value of bitcoins, in dollar terms, skyrocketed. In July 2010, after the website Slashdot ran an item that introduced the currency to the public (or at least the public enthusiastic about new technologies), the value of bitcoins jumped tenfold in five days. Over the next eight months, the value rose tenfold again. This attracted an enormous amount of publicity. More important, it also made people think that buying and holding bitcoins was an easy way to make a buck. As a result, many—probably most—Bitcoin users are acquiring bitcoins not in order to buy goods and services but to speculate. That’s a bad investment decision, and it also hurts Bitcoin’s prospects.
True believers in Bitcoin’s usefulness prefer to deny that speculation is driving the action in bitcoins. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The value of the currency has been tremendously volatile over the past year. A bitcoin has been worth as little as a few pennies and as much as $33, and after seeming to stabilize at around $14 over the summer, the bitcoin’s value tumbled by almost 50 percent in a matter of days in August. Media coverage has had an outsized impact on the value of bitcoins, even when it has not had a major impact on the number of transactions conducted. Blog posts in which people talk about buying bitcoins because of how much they’ve increased in value are common. In May, Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, which focuses on patent and copyright reform, posted that he had decided to put all his savings into Bitcoin. Although he had previously published a series of posts arguing for the bitcoin’s viability as a currency, his first listed reason for investing in bitcoins was that their value had risen a thousandfold against the U.S. dollar in the previous 14 months. That’s classic speculative thinking.
In the first Bitcoin theft of its size, a user has lost 25,000 BTC — or nearly $487,749 at today’s market rates — to an unknown thief.
While the Bitcoin community has always been quick to point out that it’s harder to forge a Bitcoin than to forge a dollar, it’s quite easy to take someone else’s Bitcoins: all you have to do is gain access to their computer’s hard drive. Once you’re in, stealing Bitcoins is easier than taking a wallet in the real world, and there’s no recourse for getting them back.
That said, it is possible to verify the movement of funds to ensure complainants are telling the truth due to Bitcoin’s public nature — services such as BlockExplorer allow users to see every transaction that has ever occurred through the network. The receiving account in this case, for instance, can be seen here.
Two senators are pressing federal authorities to crack down on an online black market and “untraceable” digital currency known as Bitcoins after reports that they are used to buy illegal drugs anonymously.
Democratic Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart in a letter that expressed concerns about the underground website “Silk Road” and the use of Bitcoins to make purchases there.
The letter prompted a discussion among Bitcoin enthusiasts about whether the government was capable of closing related bank accounts and thereby stifling the currency.
The senators released a copy of their letter on Monday. It cites recent media reports that some tech-savvy individuals were using an “anonymizing network” known as Tor to gain clandestine access to Silk Road and buy illegal drugs.
The Bitcoin digital currency also works a lot like cash in that it’s anonymous. When you go to a flea market and pay cash for an old Commodore 64, there’s no record of the transaction. You don’t have to know the seller’s name, and the seller doesn’t need to know yours. Digital currencies by contrast rely on accounts, and have to collect at least some information about you. Because Bitcoin employs no such accounts and instead relies on public key cryptography , there’s no way to know, just looking at the database of transfers, who sent money to whom.
A Revolutionary Concept
Bitcoin is potentially revolutionary for several reasons. For one thing, artificial currency inflation is impossible.