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Bitcoin: Revolution or Trap? Part 1
From Chapter 18 of The Money Bubble by James Turk and John Rubino:
In the Internet's early days there was general agreement that one of the first killer apps would be some form of cyber-currency. Since money was already largely non-corporeal, existing as entries in bank accounts and ready to spend with plastic cards, the next logical step would be to move the whole thing online and dispense with paper and coins and their costly and burdensome infrastructure of banks, regulators and printing presses. The emergence of such currencies would, in this optimistic scenario, consign relics like the dollar and the Fed to history's circular file and usher in an era of trust, stability, and growth similar to what occurred under the classical gold standard.
But the digital liberation of money turned out to be easier said than done, as the first wave of cyber-currencies came and went without much of an impact. eCash, for instance, was an encrypted, anonymous payment system that allowed anyone anywhere to send and receive instant payments. But it relied on the existing banking infrastructure, and because "anonymous" meant "money laundering" to the police, it faced extreme pushback from authorities who viewed such currencies as primarily empowering drug dealers - and from banks that saw no point in encouraging the competition. Only one small bank ever accepted eCash, and the currency died a quiet death a few years after its introduction.
A larger impact was made by e-gold, which offered accounts denominated in grams of gold from which owners could make and receive payments. It generated some buzz, peaking at five million users and $2 million of transactions in 2009. But here again, the fact that much of this action was apparently money laundering by parties with good reason to stay anonymous led to legal pressure that eventually led to its failure.
James' company, GoldMoney, was originally designed to operate as a gold-based payment system based on several digital currency patents. It avoided the money laundering stigma by requiring users to register under their own names, and also met with early enthusiasm. But other logistical and legal barriers proved to be insurmountable, and GoldMoney's payment system was deemphasized in favor of offshore gold storage. By the late 2000s, purely digital currencies looked, to most observers, like a near-impossibility in a world where governments and banks had the power to prevent such competition.
In 2008, a mysterious person or group using the apparent pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto unveiled a new digital currency called Bitcoin that appeared to solve some of its predecessors' problems. Without going too deeply into the technical details, the Bitcoin system tracks each piece of currency from buyer to seller, eliminating the possibility of one person spending the same piece of currency multiple times before the counterparties catch on. The network is distributed, with no central clearinghouse or bank holding everyone's money and imposing rules. "Miners" create more Bitcoins by solving complex algorithms to add more Bitcoin to the system, with the difficulty of the number crunching increasing as the quantity of Bitcoin grows, thus keeping their supply rising at a steady, predetermined rate until it reaches is a preordained limit of 21 million a century or so hence.
Bitcoins, which are a long string of alphanumeric characters, can be stored in a variety of places, from a digital "wallet" on a desktop computer to a centralized service in the cloud, or even completely off-grid by being printed on a piece of paper. And because it operates over peer-to-peer networks similar to those used by techies and teens to download music and videos, it bypasses the established banking/regulatory system, making it, at least initially, free of government oversight.
Nakamoto, whoever he (or she, they) was, disappeared in 2010. But by then the Bitcoin community had taken on a life of its own. Hundreds of users began to mine Bitcoins with increasingly sophisticated computers, and the number of merchants and individuals willing to accept, store, and transact in the currency rose steadily.
As the buzz grew louder, the small community of techie/libertarian early adopters was joined by traders sensing a serious momentum play. The dollar price of a Bitcoin rose from 5 cents in early 2010 to 36 cents in November. In February 2011 it briefly achieved parity with the dollar, and when a Forbes Magazine ran a favorable story that called it a "crypto currency," the price went parabolic, to nearly $9. More breathless press ensued, sending the price to $27 and putting the market value of Bitcoins in circulation at $130 million.
On the Internet's black market - the network of sites only accessible to computers running anonymizing software such as Tor - Bitcoin was rapidly becoming the preferred form of money. This drew the ire of the establishment, with US Senator Charles Schumer demanding the closure of online drug emporium Silk Road and describing Bitcoin as "an online form of money-laundering."
At about the same time, Bitcoin's Achilles heel became apparent, which is that it has to be stored somewhere, and no place is 100 percent secure. Bitcoins stored on a desktop can be wiped out by a crashed hard drive. Backed up on other storage media, they're vulnerable to hackers. Kept in an online storage service - which sounds like a bank but has no deposit insurance or even physical reality - they can disappear without a trace. Traded on an online exchange they can likewise simply disappear, with no recourse to former owners.
As Bitcoin rose in value the number of high-profile crimes and crashes rose apace. A Tokyo-based exchange was hacked and lost numerous client accounts. A Poland-based storage service accidentally overwrote its customer records. A West Indian storage service simply shut down, and its owner disappeared. And viruses aimed at Bitcoin caches proliferated. Newcomers, meanwhile, discovered that working with Bitcoin required skills not yet common among the non-techie 99 percent. The press turned scornful, and a consensus formed that the concept was fatally flawed and without much of a future.
Throughout that boom and bust, Bitcoin retained a core user base that saw its possibilities and worked to overcome its flaws by developing point-of-sale hardware and online merchant services while lessening its dependence on a small number of exchanges.
And then, just when the outside world had stopped paying attention, Bitcoin recovered. From under $20 at the beginning of 2013 it rose to $240, crashed to below $100, and then in one dramatic arc soared to more than $1,000. In early 2014 Bitcoin's market value exceeded $10 billion and the number of merchants willing to accept it was soaring. The market appears to have spoken: Bitcoin is for real.
Coming on Feb 5: Bitcoin: Revolution or Trap? Part 2. Read it now here.