By now you have probably heard of Bitcoin, but can you define it?
Most often it is described as a non-government digital currency. Bitcoin is also sometimes called a cybercurrency or, in a nod to its encrypted origins, a cryptocurrency. Those descriptions are accurate enough, but they miss the point. It’s like describing the U.S. dollar as a green piece of paper with pictures on it.
I have my own ways of describing Bitcoin. I think of it as store credit without the store. A prepaid phone without the phone. Precious metal without the metal. Legal tender for no debts, public or private, unless the party to whom it is tendered wishes to accept it. An instrument backed by the full faith and credit only of its anonymous creators, in whom I therefore place no faith, and to whom I give no credit except for ingenuity.
I wouldn’t touch a bitcoin with a 10-foot USB cable. But a fair number of people already have, and quite a few more soon may.
This is partly because entrepreneurs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, best known for their role in the origins of Facebook, are now seeking to use their technological savvy, and money, to bring Bitcoin into the mainstream.
The Winklevosses hope to start an exchange-traded fund for bitcoins. An ETF would make Bitcoin more widely available to investors who lack the technological know-how to purchase the digital currency directly. As of April, the Winklevosses are said to have held around 1 percent of all existent bitcoins.
Created in 2009 by an anonymous cryptographer, Bitcoin operates on the premise that anything, even intangible bits of code, can have value so long as enough people decide to treat it as valuable. Bitcoins exist only as digital representations and are not pegged to any traditional currency.
According to the Bitcoin website, “Bitcoin is designed around the idea of a new form of money that uses cryptography to control its creation and transactions, rather than relying on central authorities.” (1) New bitcoins are “mined” by users who solve computer algorithms to discover virtual coins. Bitcoins’ purported creators have said that the ultimate supply of bitcoins will be capped at 21 million.
While Bitcoin promotes itself as “a very secure and inexpensive way to handle payments,” (2) in reality few businesses have made the move to accept bitcoins. Of those that have, a sizable number operate in the black market.
Bitcoins are traded anonymously over the Internet, without any participation on the part of established financial institutions. As of 2012, sales of drugs and other black-market goods accounted for an estimated 20 percent of exchanges from bitcoins to U.S. dollars on the main Bitcoin exchange, called Mt. Gox. The Drug Enforcement Agency recently conducted its first-ever Bitcoin seizure, after reportedly tying a transaction on the anonymous Bitcoin-only marketplace Silk Road to the sale of prescription and illegal drugs.