In case you haven’t heard of BitCoin, it’s one of those concepts straight out of science fiction books from late last century. Untraceable digital cash that’s not controlled by a central agency such as a government. Jason Calacanis thinks it’s the most dangerous project he’s ever seen.
Bitcoin is a P2P currency that could topple governments, destabilize economies and create uncontrollable global bazaars for contraband.
Hyperbole much? I don’t think BitCoin is dangerous, at least when compared to unmanned drones, sharks with frickin’ lasers or BigDog
. Sure, people can and will use BitCoin for buying drugs and other illegal services just like cash today. Of course, there’s the added advantage that you don’t need to be physically together in order to exchange payment. Spies will no longer have to collect suitcases from trashcans in exchange for lists of double agents, but for physical goods it’s not so important.
What’s interesting to me is that BitCoin is now in a legal grey area. The BitCoin economy is small enough that it’s still flying under the radar of governments (the total value of all existing BitCoin currency is on the order of $50M USD). It reminds me quite a bit of mp3 files in 1997, when they were just a novelty and record companies didn’t know what to make of them. It was obvious to me that digital music was going to be huge, so I spent six weeks hacking nonstop on my own mp3 search engine. It turned out to be a good investment, as I made some interesting cash operating the system and later sold the software to Inktomi. But I digress.
The parallel between mp3 files and digital currency is that both addressed a very specific need/want. In the case of music it was about convenience. There’s no need to explain to someone under 20 how ridiculous it would be spend time choosing the 10 or 15 CDs you’d want to take on a road trip, let alone packing huge boxes of them when going off to college. For digital currency it’s more than that. Most people I know don’t like the fact that all their purchases are being tracked by marketers, governments or their spouses. Cryptocash is not only convenient, but also untraceable. You can call that dangerous as much as alcohol, a hammer or bittorrent. It’s just a tool, and there are legitimate uses for exchanging cash anonymously.
Of course, governments don’t like to be left out of overseeing financial transactions. More importantly, they have the power to make these transactions illegal AND enforce this law. I agree with Calacanis in that if BitCoin takes off, it’s only a matter of time until the US government decides to throw serious resources to combat the evil of anonymous currency. I’m sure they’ll come up with a creative name, such as the War on Digital Evil Terror Drug Laundering Money. The difference with mp3 files is that this time the government will be the principal, not just a proxy for the movie/record industries.
Still, Pandora’s box has been opened. Because there are such compelling use cases for digital currency, it won’t go away. Maybe BitCoin will be thwarted, but ByteBill or NibbleNickel will take over. It would be sad if something as useful as anonymous, untraceable digital cash was only used by criminals. I for one am going to be watching this one unfold with popcorn