Bitcoin bag

Turning megabytes into megabucks

After three years of crashes, controversy and fluctuations can e-currency Bitcoin establish itself as a viable alternative to cold, hard cash?

"The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve."

Many people will agree with this statement from Satoshi Nakamoto in light of the Euro crisis. However, in 2011, in a wave of media coverage, his virtual currency Bitcoin rose to over $30 and crashed in four months. Technology, it seemed, was not an antidote to unreliable banks and human fallibility. A few months earlier, Nakamoto (probably a pseudonym) disappeared. Some speculated he might be virtual himself despite the existence of real co-developers such as Gavin Anderson, Nils Schneider, Jeff Garzik, and Wladimir J van der Laan who have solid engineering pedigrees with firms such as Red Hat, Silicon Graphics, and ASML.

Bitcoin insiders have a different take on last year's events: the currency as a whole did not crash, just its value on one popular exchange in Tokyo called Mt Gox. "Mt Gox restricted daily account withdrawals to $1,000 worth of Bitcoins but a hacker got round this by simulating a sell-off in order to drive the exchange rate to zero," explains Donald Norman who, with programmer Amir Taaki, set up the UK Bitcoin exchange.

"By pushing the price down, the hacker was able to cash out a large number of Bitcoins. While the value of Bitcoin went down to cents on Mt Gox, on all the other exchanges it stabilised to around $13. Mt'Gox was not up to professional security specifications. "They were repeatedly warned about this and clearly did not fix the problem," says Norman with some frustration. 

When a bank or a company collapses, we don't say it is a problem with the dollar but a problem with the bank or the company, he adds. "Bitcoin has never been cracked or compromised."

Like the file-sharing application Bittorrent and the free phone-call software Skype, Bitcoin is a way of sharing computation, data, and bandwidth – known as peer-to-peer (P2P) computing – among a community of Internet users. In the case of Bitcoin, participants hold the cryptographic keys to a currency made of secure mathematical tokens and transact directly with each other.

P2P applications generally provide a lower cost alternative to a paid-for service. Bitcoin lets its users send a form of digital cash around the world in minutes without incurring the large fees charged by financial organisations. The Bitcoin community would go further and describe Bitcoin as the first completely decentralised and fully democratic currency. "It is giving the power back to the people," says Amir Taaki.

What is real?

For those not heavily engaged in the virtual world, a virtual currency might seem baffling. How can you have money that is not contractually backed by physical assets or legal tender laws?

A currency is a kind of collective belief, like a religion, says Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire. An extreme example would be the huge stones that were used on the island of Yap in the South Pacific as a currency. People agreed on the stones' value and remembered who owned them. "Modern currencies are not fundamentally very different," says Huws. "In essence, as soon as people stop believing in the Euro or the Yen or whatever, it collapses."

But at some point, she says, we have to come back to the idea of a real economy, created by real workers, putting in real effort, inventing real things, sold in real markets. Huws is particularly interested in how this relates to virtual products. "The basic form of transaction in a money economy is people exchanging their time for money. Because of the different values of different people's time, it can become profitable to outsource from one person to another. So you can create a market in someone playing your video games or using your computer to do cryptography and so on."

Virtual monsters pay the bills

Playing multiplayer online games to acquire virtual in-game currency has become a source of real full-time employment for up to one million people, mostly in China. Estimates about the size of the 'gold farming' trade range from US$1bn to more than $10bn, suggesting there is plenty of potential to build large global 'sub' economies on virtual currencies.

Gold farming brings real-world scarcities and inequalities of time and money to bear on virtual scarcities of currency and resources, explains Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester in his paper 'Understanding "Gold Farming" and Real-Money Trading as the Intersection of Real and Virtual Economies'. The Internet, he says, has allowed those in the world with more money than time (player-buyers) to trade a scarce resource (gold, or items, or high-level characters) with those with more time than money (gold-farmers).

Heeks traces gold-farming's origins to 1997, a year that brought us Ultima Online, the first true massively multiplayer online game; the launch of eBay (providing a low-cost marketplace for virtual items); and the Asian currency crisis in which Asian governments invested heavily in broadband infrastructure. A games culture took root in east Asia. Some of the unemployed set up PC kiosks in which games could be played. Others turned to gaming to fill their empty hours. Chinese 'playborers' earn can around US$150 or so per month with food and accommodation thrown in working a 10-12 hour daily shift 'in-game' mining ore, picking herbs, killing monsters and so on.

Who's in charge?

Within an online game, a company controls the virtual currency like a central bank in a conventional currency. Bitcoin has the global reach of a game currency but no central control. It is also cryptographically secure – the only way to crack it is to have more 'attacking' nodes on the P2P network than benign ones.

Such characteristics, say Bitcoin's detractors, make the currency easily subverted for illicit purposes. This is a legitimate worry. And yet fiat currencies with full regulation do not stop tax avoidance or money laundering or worse. Natalia Morar's investigations into the murder of Andrey Kozlov, deputy chairman of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, for example, brought to light the kind of corruption, money laundering and thuggery one would expect from a Scorsese movie, says Donald Norman.

Frictionless trading

Realistically speaking, it is hard to stop any currency being used for illicit purposes. But there is wealth and social value that can be made by having a more economical system in place. A so-called 'frictionless' global means of exchange could stimulate a new era of trade, says David Birch, director of the British IT consultancy Consult Hyperion, which worked on the mobile phone-based money transfer system M-PESA used in Kenya.

"We are moving into an era of blogs and e-books but it is complicated getting paid for them," says Birch. "If there was a red button on your keyboard that said give this person 50p, you can imagine new businesses springing up. Because M-PESA provides a simple low-cost way of paying people, there are businesses in Kenya that could not have existed before. Firms can now sell a day's insurance, for instance, to farmers who need to move their animals from one place to another," he says.

Whether Bitcoin is the way forward, or a variation on the P2P approach, or another technology, will depend on many factors.

Birch thinks Bitcoin is technically appealing but he has reservations. "Distributing the processing over a P2P network is a good idea for efficiency but if I'm going to buy a TV from someone in Kazakhstan, say, I want a central registry too so if the TV does not turn up, I can complain."

Edwin Jacobs, a partner at time.lex, a Brussels-based law firm specialising in business law for the information society, has been looking into the legal complexities of electronic cash. Having been involved in checking compliance across Europe for international clients who were rolling out an electronic wallet, Jacobs wondered if a decentralised P2P currency might fit into one of the 'exceptions' in the revised European Electronic Money Directive 2009/110 EC.

The new variation came into force on 20 April 2011 and removed some barriers to offering e-money services. Money stored on specific pre-paid instruments such as London Transport Oyster cards, designed for precise payment needs or with limited scope, is excluded from the more onerous compliance requirements. Another exception is where a mobile phone or other digital network customer pays the network operator directly for digital goods or services, such as buying ringtones.

"Bitcoin could possibly claim it was under an exception but it needs to be transparent about why. Much can be regulated and explained in a contract, for instance, but at the moment, the Bitcoin software only comes with a basic disclaimer saying the authors accept no liability."

The data protection position also needs clarification. "Because Bitcoin is decentralised and operates over a P2P network, there are in essence many mini databases which collect data. Do they collect personal data by which you can identify someone? If so, what do they collect and who has access to it?"

If many people start using and trusting Bitcoin, then it will gain traction, says Jacobs. "New technology is what gives us progress. But from a consumer perspective, to be more widely accepted it needs to comply with basic regulatory requirements or there should be a clear explanation why it does not need to. 'Comply or explain' is a philosophy also used in the financial sector."

Donald Norman and Amir Taaki have no illusions about what is needed to get the technology widely accepted. "Right now, Bitcoin is not as user-friendly as it could be. It is like the Internet without the Web browser," says Taaki. He is working on improving the software by developing a library of functions for developers to make it easier to build applications.

As part of their Intersango activities, they have had positive feedback from the FSA, says Norman. "While there is not yet any declaration by any government body as to how Bitcoins will be classified under law, the FSA has been very fair and supportive in confirming that Bitcoin resellers will not be regulated by many of the more restrictive regulations seen with other similar methods of payment."

Meanwhile, those who find the subversive aspect of Bitcoin appealing might be disappointed to learn that (apparently) co-developer Gavin Anderson has been asked to talk to the CIA's technology investment arm, In-Q-Tel.

Maybe those Mexican drug cartels will have to stick to their usual methods... 

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