“GIVE me control of a nation’s money supply, and I care not who makes its laws.” So said Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty. What would he make of Bitcoin, an online currency with no issuing authority whatsoever? Despite being written off following a speculative bubble and crash last year, the online cryptocurrency is still going strong, not least thanks to its ability to circumnavigate the law. (via Bitcoin: Monetarists Anonymous | The Economist)
- Bitcoin was devised in 2009 by a mysterious figure known as Satoshi Nakomoto. It is the world’s first, and so far only, decentralised online currency. Instead of a central bank, Bitcoins can be issued by anyone with a powerful personal computer: it mints them by solving extremely difficult mathematical problems. The problems are automatically made harder to ensure that the overall supply of Bitcoins cannot grow too fast. They are traded online, with transactions cryptographically authenticated.
- One unit now costs $12, and the volume of transactions is increasing. Though the price still fluctuates against the dollar, it is less volatile than it was, which makes it a better store of value. Its use as a means of exchange is also getting easier: an increasing number of online retailers take the currency, and new smartphone apps make Bitcoins almost as easy to use as cash. A proliferation of exchanges means that it is relatively easy to swap Bitcoins for conventional currencies.
- Tony Gallippi, the boss of Bitpay, which processes Bitcoin payments for retailers, says that his client list has increased from around 100 in March to 1,100 now. These are mostly e-commerce businesses, selling things like domain names and web hosting. But the list also includes a taxi-driver in Chicago and a dentist in Finland. “Credit cards weren’t designed for the internet,” he says. Bitcoin transactions cost less and cannot be reversed in the way credit-card transactions can be. This is important for firms selling to customers in countries known for credit-card fraud, such as Russia or Belarus.
- But another big reason for the currency’s success is its role in dodgy online markets. Although tracing Bitcoin transactions to real people is not impossible, the currency’s relative anonymity and ease of use makes it a natural conduit for criminal funds. On the website Silk Road, a sort of eBay for drugs hidden in a dark corner of the web known as Tor, Bitcoins are the only means of transaction. Buyers transfer their Bitcoins into an escrow account where they sit until receipt of the goods is confirmed. Bitcoin transactions on Silk Road are now worth $1.9m per month, estimates Nicolas Christin, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University.
the TOR address is silkroadvb5piz3r.onion