A common Bitcoin logo
|Ledger||Transactions are verified and secured by decentralized peer-to-peer network.|
|Date of introduction||3 January 2009|
|Issuance||25BTC every ten minutes|
|Source||Total BTC in Circulation|
|Method||The rate of new Bitcoin creation will be halved every four years until there are 21 million BTC:17|
|Symbol||BTC, XBT, , ฿ (note: this also is the baht symbol), Ƀ|
Bitcoin is an open source, peer-to-peer payment network and digital currency introduced in 2009 by pseudonymous developer "Satoshi Nakamoto". Bitcoin has been called a cryptocurrency because it uses public-key cryptography for security. Users send payments by broadcasting digitally signed messages that transfer ownership of bitcoins, the unit of currency. A decentralized network of specialized computers verifies and timestamps all transactions using a proof-of-work system. The operators of these computers, known as "miners", are rewarded with transaction fees and newly minted bitcoins.
Bitcoin has been a subject of scrutiny for its use in illicit activities. In 2013 the FBI shut down the online black market Silk Road and seized US$28.5 million worth of bitcoin from the alleged mastermind. Theft of bitcoins has been covered extensively in the media. The risk of theft can be mitigated by generating and storing keys offline.
Commercial use of Bitcoin, illicit or otherwise, is currently small compared to its use by speculators, which has fueled price volatility. Increasingly, however, Bitcoin is also used to pay for products and services. In December 2013, the San Francisco based startup Coinbase received a US$25 million venture capital investment, the largest ever for a Bitcoin company, to build out its consumer and merchant payment processing services. Merchants have an incentive to accept the currency because transaction fees are lower than the 2 to 3% typically imposed by credit card processors. Notable vendors include OkCupid, Reddit, and WordPress.
Reception of Bitcoin by governments has been mixed. In November 2013 the United States Senate held a committee hearing to discuss digital currencies where the reception of Bitcoin was generally positive. In December 2013 China's central bank barred financial institutions from using Bitcoin, prompting internet giant Baidu to stop accepting the currency.
- 1 Transactions
- 2 History
- 3 Economics
- 4 Legal issues
- 5 Reception
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Integral to Bitcoin is a public transaction ledger and log known as the blockchain, which shows who owns how many bitcoins currently and records the participants in all prior transactions as well. By keeping a record of all transactions, the blockchain prevents double-spending (copying one bitcoin and spending it in multiple different places) because the record shows that once a bitcoin has been spent, the previous owner no longer controls it. The blockchain is maintained not by a central body but by a distributed network of computers that run a program to solve cryptographic puzzles relating to information in the blockchain. Users who devote computing power to maintaining the blockchain this way are called "miners" because they are awarded in bitcoin when they are first to solve such puzzles - mining is how new bitcoins are generated. The mathematical calculations performed by miners' computers serve to verify that each transaction is valid and add the information to the blockchain. As more bitcoins come into circulation, the puzzles involved in mining them become increasingly difficult, and the rewards are halved at regular intervals, until 21 million bitcoins have been created and production stops. As Bitcoin achieves wider recognition and more people compete to mine the coins, competition for the limited number of bitcoins awarded for solving the cryptographic puzzles becomes more steep and more powerful computers are needed in order to compete - a fact which has spawned a technology boom in sales of Bitcoin mining technology.
|This section requires expansion. (December 2013)|
Bitcoin uses cryptography but does not do so to protect the identities of its users. Bitcoin is anonymous in that it's difficult to associate Bitcoin transactions with real-life identities. In addition, Bitcoin intermediaries such as exchanges are required by law in many jurisdictions to collect personal customer data.
|This section requires expansion. (December 2013)|
Through various exchanges, bitcoins are bought and sold at a variable price against the value of other currencies. While there may be a seemingly large number, exchanges regularly fail, taking client bitcoins with them. A published research study showed that of 40 Bitcoin exchanges studied, 18 ended up closing over a period of 3 years.
In order to make a payment, a user transfers an amount of bitcoins from his or her account into the account of the recipient, and then the transaction is validated by others in the network and recorded in the blockchain ledger of all Bitcoin transactions. The time it takes others to validate the transaction means that there is a delay of about 10 minutes in processing a payment.
Bitcoin payment processing fees are substantially lower than those of credit cards or money transfers. The competitive advantage lower fees confer to Bitcoin may lessen or vanish in the future, however. Currently, doing the work of payment processing is rewarded with newly created bitcoins, but once the Bitcoin ceiling is reached, processing transactions will no longer be rewarded with new bitcoins. Fees are generally independent of the amount being sent, making Bitcoin attractive for those seeking to transfer larger amounts of money. In one instance, bitcoins worth millions of US dollars were transferred for only a few pennies.
Bitcoin functions using public-key cryptography, in which a user generates a pair of cryptographic keys: one public and one private. Only the private key can decode information encrypted with the public key; therefore the keys' owner can distribute the public key openly without fear that anyone will be able to use it to gain access to the encrypted information. (The private key, however, must be kept secret and secure.) The public key can be used as an "address" to which other users can send bitcoins. Anyone wishing to use Bitcoin can create one or more Bitcoin addresses, which are collected and tracked in "wallets". Anyone can send bitcoins to the public address provided by the owner of the wallet, while the private key must be entered by the wallet owner to send bitcoins. Securing and protecting the private key is the essence of wallet security. If the private key for an address is not kept secret, the bitcoins may be stolen; theft has been documented on numerous occasions.
Wallets allow a user to complete transactions between addresses by requesting an update to the blockchain, the public transaction log. Wallets come in a variety of forms: apps for mobile devices and computers, hardware devices, and paper tokens. When making a purchase with a mobile device, the use of QR codes to simplify transactions is ubiquitous.
The four main ways to get Bitcoins are:
- Exchanges, where you can buy and sell Bitcoin for fiat currency
- Transactions between individuals using Bitcoin Wallets
- Online content or services payed through the site owner's Bitcoin Wallet
First mentioned in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym "Satoshi Nakamoto", Bitcoin became operational in early 2009, with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first bitcoins. The currency had early technical problems such as a 2009 exploit that allowed the creation of unlimited bitcoins.
On average, bitcoins have appreciated rapidly in relation to other currencies including the US dollar, euro and British pound. In 2011 the value of one bitcoin rapidly rose from about $0.30 to $32, before falling back down to $2. Bitcoin began attracting media attention in late 2012, and numerous news articles have been written about it. In 2013, some mainstream services such as OkCupid, Baidu, Reddit, Humble Bundle and Foodler began accepting it. That year also saw the first interventions by law enforcement. Assets belonging to the Mt. Gox exchange were seized, and the Silk Road drugs market was shut down.
During November 2013, the China-based Bitcoin exchange BTC China overtook Japan-based Mt. Gox and Europe-based Bitstamp to become the largest Bitcoin trading exchange by trade volume. On 19 November 2013, the value of Bitcoin on the Mt. Gox exchange soared to a peak of US$900 following a United States Senate committee hearing, at which the committee was informed that virtual currencies were a legitimate financial service. On the same day, one bitcoin traded for over RMB¥6780 (US$1100) in China. With roughly 12 million bitcoins in existence as of November 2013, the new price increased the market cap for Bitcoin to at least US$7.2 billion.
On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China announced in a press release regarding bitcoin regulation that whilst individuals in China are permitted to freely trade and exchange bitcoins as a commodity, it is prohibited for Chinese financial banks to operate using bitcoins or for bitcoins to be used as legal tender currency, and that entities dealing with bitcoins must track and report suspicious activity to prevent money laundering. The value of bitcoin dropped on various exchanges between 11 to 20 percent following the regulation announcement, before rebounding upward again. A side-effect of this announcement was a subsidiary of the Chinese internet giant Baidu ceasing to accept bitcoins as payment.
Large fluctuations in the value of Bitcoin have led some to question its ability to function as a currency since people may be reluctant to hold onto their money in the form of bitcoin for fear that it might lose value. Stability in a currency's value plays an important role in people's willingness to use it. However the volatility has little effect on the currency's utility as a medium of transfer from one currency to another since the amount of time money is stored as bitcoin is small so fluctuations would also be minor. The fees and delays involved in transferring money across borders via bitcoin are small compared to those imposed by banks and their intermediaries in the standard way: pennies compared to dollars and minutes compared to days. As of November 2013, the main use for bitcoins was likely for international money transferring purposes.
Bitcoin's deflationary bias encourages hoarding. However, currently Bitcoin does see some use as a currency. By November 2013 there were about 1000 "brick and mortar" businesses willing to accept payment in bitcoin, and more than ten thousand merchants online. A non-profit organization, the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Monica accepts donations in bitcoin.
Alternative to national currencies
Some have suggested that Bitcoin is gaining popularity in countries with problem-plagued national currencies, as it can be used to circumvent inflation, capital controls, and international sanctions. Bitcoins are used by some Argentinians as an alternative to the official currency, which is stymied by inflation and strict capital controls. In addition, some Iranians use bitcoins to evade currency sanctions.
Many have mentioned speculative bubbles in connection with Bitcoin. Professor John Quiggin of the University of Queensland has noted that since Bitcoin by design has no intrinsic value, it is "perhaps the finest example of a pure bubble" currently known and "represent[s] the sharpest ever refutation of the efficient-markets hypothesis", but cautions that we have no way to predict when the value of bitcoins will return to zero.
Nick Colas, a market strategist for ConvergEx Group, has remarked on the effect of increasing use of Bitcoin and its restricted supply, noting, "When incremental adoption meets relatively fixed supply, it should be no surprise that prices go up. And that's exactly what is happening to BTC prices."
Bitcoins are often traded as an investment by speculators who expect the currency to increase in value as its popularity widens. Bitcoins have been described as lacking intrinsic value as an investment because their value depends only on the willingness of users to accept them. Their vulnerability to hacking also makes their use as an investment more questionable.
Bitcoin's association with criminal activities has historically hindered the currency from attaining widespread, mainstream use and has attracted the attention of financial regulators, legislative bodies, and law enforcement. The Washington Post has labeled it "the currency of choice for seedy online activities," and CNN has called Bitcoin a "shady online currency." Its links to criminal activities have prompted scrutiny from the FBI, US Senate, and the State of New York. The FBI stated in a 2012 report that "Bitcoins will likely continue to attract cyber-criminals who view it as a means to move or steal funds".
In March 2013 the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as Bitcoin, classifying American "Bitcoin miners" who sell their generated bitcoins as money services businesses (or MSBs), that may be subject to registration and other legal obligations. In August 2013 the German Finance Ministry characterized Bitcoin as a unit of account, usable in multilateral clearing circles and subject to capital gains tax if held less than one year. The New York State Department of Financial Services, citing its authority to regulate money transmissions and its concern with criminal activity (Silk Road in particular), announced an inquiry in late 2013 into possible regulations and guidelines for Bitcoin (a "BitLicense") and the holding of public hearings in New York City. The US Internal Revenue Service has also stated that it is actively working on its own rules for Bitcoin.
Some have suggested that due to its close association with illegal purchases, governments could outlaw Bitcoin. This assertion has been made by Steven Strauss, a Harvard public policy professor, and was also mentioned in 2013 SEC filing made by a Bitcoin investment vehicle. Bitcoins are not currently illegal, however. FBI Special Agent Christopher Tarbell has stated that "Bitcoins are not illegal in and of themselves and have known legitimate uses".
Several news outlets assert that the popularity of Bitcoin hinges on the ability to use them to purchase illegal substances. In 2013 The Guardian reported that the currency was primarily used to purchase illegal drugs and for online gambling, and The Huffington Post stated that "online gambling accounts for a huge portion of Bitcoin activity." Legitimate transactions are thought to be far less than the number involved in the purchase of drugs, and roughly one half of all transactions made using Bitcoin are bets placed at a single online gaming website. In 2012, an academic from the Carnegie Mellon CyLab and the Information Networking Institute estimated that 4.5 to 9% of all bitcoins spent were for purchases of drugs at a single online market, Silk Road. As the majority of the Bitcoin transactions were at this time speculative in nature, this academic asserts that drugs constituted a much larger percentage of the products and services bought using the currency, however. The Huffington Post stated in 2013 that online gun dealers use Bitcoin to sell arms without background checks.
While some regulatory authorities, including the European Banking Authority, feel Bitcoin may be used for money laundering, a 2012 report by the FBI acknowledged such fears but stated that there were no known instances of this occurring. Some say one obstacle to bitcoins becoming widely used to launder money may be the fact that the transaction history is public. During the US Senate hearing in 2013, Jennifer Shasky Calvery, director of the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said that despite the possibility for using Bitcoin that "Cash is probably still the best medium for money laundering."
In June 2011, Symantec warned about the possibility of botnets engaging in covert mining of bitcoins, consuming computing cycles, using extra electricity and increasing computer temperatures. Some malware used the parallel processing capabilities of the GPUs built into many modern video cards. In mid-August 2011, bitcoin miner botnets were detected again, and less than three months later Bitcoin-mining trojans infecting Mac OS X were also discovered. In April 2013 electronic sports organization E-Sports Entertainment were accused of hijacking 14,000 computers to mine bitcoins; the case was settled in November with the organization fined US$1 million if it breaks the law within the following ten years, or $325,000 if it does not.
Economists have had a mixed reaction to Bitcoin. Some have responded positively to Bitcoin, including François R. Velde, senior economist of the Federal Reserve in Chicago who described it as "an elegant solution to the problem of creating a digital currency."
Other economists commenting on Bitcoin have been critical. Paul Krugman has suggested that the structure of the currency incentivizes hoarding and that its value derives from the expectation that others will accept it as payment. Larry Summers has expressed a "wait and see" attitude when it comes to Bitcoin.
On 18 November 2013 the United States Senate held a committee hearing titled Beyond Silk Road: Potential Risks, Threats and Promises of Virtual Currencies to discuss virtual currencies. At this hearing, held by Senator Tom Carper, Bitcoin and other currencies were received generally positively, with it being stated that Bitcoin was a "legal means of exchange" and that "online payment systems, both centralized and decentralized, offer legitimate financial services" by US officials such as Peter Kadzik and Mythili Raman. It was noted, however, that the Justice Department's Criminal Division has seen an increased use of virtual currencies for illegal purposes such as drugs and child pornography.
In November 2013 Richard Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would accept Bitcoin as payment, saying that he had invested in Bitcoin and found it "fascinating how a whole new global currency has been created", encouraging others to also invest in Bitcoin. PayPal President David Marcus has said he thinks that Bitcoin is a "great place to put assets" but that it won't be a currency until its price volatility reduces.
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