If bitcoin can’t succeed at money laundering, what can it succeed at?

Look, I don’t mean to imply that everyone who wants to keep cash, and in particular high-value banknotes, in circulation is doing so only to help to minimise the costs of criminal enterprise and to facilitate money laundering on a grand scale. That would be ridiculous, On the other hand, though, there does seem to be some correlation between flipping great wodges of cash and at least the suspicion of not entirely above board entrepreneurship. But that aside…

Police arrested Dmitry Zakharchenko, the deputy head of the Energy Industry Department of the General Administration of Economic Security and Combating the Corruption (GAESCC)… According to investigators, police seized a sum of some $120 million and € 2 million ($2.2 million).

From Money bag: Police raid on anti-corruption official uncovers over $120mn in cash — RT News

Who knew a life in public service could be so rewarding? I’m sure there are entirely innocent reasons why Dmitry had a A HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS in cash in his apartment. Perhaps he didn’t get time to pop to the bank, or perhaps the night safe was broken. Either way, I imagine it must have been rather inconvenient to step over flipping great wodges of cash to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, so it makes me wonder why he didn’t either deposit the money in a bank (although I imagine yellow press scare stories about negative interest rates might have put him off) or convert it to something with less volume. Bitcoin might have been a good choice, but I suspect that like most people in a similar situation, the untraceable nature of cash must have been appealing for some reason. 



I keep my cash under the bed but I’ve put some on the top of the bed ready for Money2020.

While people often refer to bitcoin as anonymous, it really isn’t. Ah, you might say. But in the world of bitcoin, smart criminals will use mixers and such like to obfuscate the origin of coins and thus confound the authorities. Yeah, whatever. That’s because criminals aren’t using it for large scale enterprise. As soon as they do, I don’t doubt that the relevant authorities will take quick and simple action. Bitcoins lack of fungibility makes it vulnerable to straightforward regulation in that respect.

But what if law enforcement goes to the biggest miners in the world (representing at least 51% of the hashpower) and tells them that if they continue to confirm easily identifiable mixing transactions, they will be accused of money laundering.

From On Fungibility, Bitcoin, Monero and why ZCash is a bad idea. – We Use Cash

That’s that then. If bitcoin isn’t going to be used for money laundering, then what is it going to be used for? Certainly not the purchase of goods or services, not as a store of value (except for speculators) and certainly not as a mechanism for deferred payments, since there is no real reason to imagine that it will still be around a decade from now.

“The total addressable market of people who want to buy bitcoin is very, very thin,”

From What a Tech Startup’s Pivots Say About Bitcoin’s Future | American Banker

Indeed. And most of them aren’t in America or any other developed market. I don’t have time to go and check the latest figures but as far as I know pretty much all of the Bitcoins in the world are being bought for Yuan and traded on Chinese exchanges. It’s easy to understand why.

Bitcoin is more expensive and inconvenient than regular banking is, and far more expensive and inconvenient than regular banking could be if it starts supporting smart transactions on public ledgers without bothering with the baggage of mining.

From Bram Cohen’s answer to Bram Cohen: What is the state of Bitcoin in 2016? – Quora

This robust (and accurate) remark from Bram Cohen (the chap who invented BitTorrent) is just what the Bitcoin chaps don’t want to hear. As I’ve said before, and will say again (having being falsely accused of being “anti-Bitcoin” today), I think Craig Wright’s observations on this topic are that ones that resonate with me.

The mining of bitcoin is a security service that alone creates no wealth. Consequently, those using the network pay for the service.

From Bitcoin and the costs of consumption – Dr. Craig Wright Blog

A shared security service that people will pay to use seems like a much better way to imagine Bitcoin than as a new form of payment or a new kind of currency. This shared security service may be used for a great many things, most of them as yet undiscovered, and I don’t doubt that people will try and possibly succeed to build a viable payment service on top of Bitcoin, but I am unconvinced that Bitcoin itself will be that mass market payment service to take on Visa and MasterCard.

It doesn’t have to be “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Once again I’ve been involved in a series of Twitter exchanges about the relationship between cash and anonymity. Many in the Bitcoin community see Bitcoin’s sort-of-anonymity as an important characteristic because it defends the individual against state power and they berate me for wanting to replace cash “in circulation” with a digital alternative. Cash, they claim, is freedom. One odd aspect of this argument is that the cash is, of course, a byproduct of the leviathan they affect to despise.

Narayana Kocherlakota, formerly the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and now a prolific economics blogger, penned a recent article on the abolition of cash. Kocherlakota makes the point that if you don’t like government meddling in the proper functioning of free markets, then you shouldn’t be a big fan of central bank-issued banknotes.

From Moneyness: Kocherlakota on cash

I’m not, as it happens. In fact, I think we should start to consign them to the dustbin of history, beginning with the $100 bill, the £50 note and that affront to law-abiding people everywhere, the Swiss 1,000 franc note. There are an increasing number of people coming around to my way of thinking, including the former chief economist to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kenneth Rogoff, who recently published a book entitled “The Curse of Cash” in which he argues that banknotes should be withdrawn not only because of their use in criminal endeavours but because they prevent central banks from using their full range of monetary policy tools.

Kocherlakota doesn’t mention it explicitly, but should cash be abolished in order to remove the lower bound to interest rates, a potential replacement would be a new central bank-issued emoney, either Fedcoin or what Dave Birch has dubbed FedPesa.

From Moneyness: Kocherlakota on cash

But without wishing to be accused of pedantry, what does he mean by “central bank-issued electronic money”? In his presentation on ’The Zero Lower Bound and Anonymity”, Kocherlakota tends toward some form of cryptocurrency to replace fiat currency rather than a central bank digital currency and one of the reasons for this is his (entirely reasonable) concern about anonymity. This point is illustrated by literary reference.

In Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, a theocratic government named the Republic of Gilead has taken away many of the rights that women currently enjoy. One of the tools the Republic uses to control women is a ban on cash, all transactions now being routed digitally through something called the Compubank

From Moneyness: Kocherlakota on cash

It’s been many, many years since I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” so I went to my bookshelf to dig it out and re-read that part. The narrator talks about how the evil junta in charge of future America took over and says that it would have been harder if there had still been paper money. I don’t see how. North Korea has everyone using paper money and virtually no cards. Denmark has virtually no paper money and everyone uses cards (and phones). To be frank, in the modern world, I don’t think cash is that closely related to dictatorship.

 The Handmaid's Tale

The point I wanted to make here, though, is that it is wrong to present the alternatives as total surveillance and anonymity. I simply do not accept that the alternative to the unconditional anonymity of cash and the crime that goes with it is a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare. That’s only one way to design a circulating medium of exchange and it’s not the way that I would design it. I would opt for something along the lines of a universal pseudonymous mechanism capable of supporting an arbitrary number of currencies, a Mondex de nos jours, an M-PESA with go-faster stripes. In a world where there are completely, unconditionally anonymous payment mechanisms in widespread use there’s no way to stop very bad people from using them to do very bad things, so I’d prefer a world in which there are pseudonymous mechanisms that defend against routine surveillance and petty intrusion but allow societies legitimate interests to protect against crime.

Does this mean that anonymous mechanisms should be banned? Probably not, for the good reason that it would be impossible to do so. More likely would be a situation shown in the diagram below where there is an anonymous layer that has a pseudonymous layer on top of it and a absonymous (I made this word up) on top of that. People, governments and businesses would use this pseudonymous layer: the anonymous money would be useless for almost all transactions for almost all people since no-one would accept it. I would love to give this kind of anonymous money the generic name ZeroCash, after the William Gibson novel (“Count Zero”) in which one of my all-time favourite quotes about the future of money appears:

‘He had his cash money, but you couldn’t pay for food with that. It wasn’t actually illegal to have the stuff, it was just that no- body ever did anything legitimate with it.’

Unfortunately, someone else has already beaten me to it and not as a generic name! [See E. Ben-Sasson, A. Chiesa, C. Garman, M. Green,I. Miers, E. Tromer, and M. Virza, “Zerocash: Decentralized anonymous payments from bitcoin” in IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, SP 2014, Berkeley, CA, USA, May 18-21, 2014. IEEE Computer Society, pp.459–474 (2014)]. Well, I’m fighting back by starting use zerocash (with the lower case initial) to mean generic unconditionally anonymous electronic cash. The wallet that this electronic cash is stored in is an anonymous digital identity. It’s just a string of bits.

Now, you could imagine some form of zerocash in circulation as a cash alternative but not accepted in polite society (i.e., any attempt to spend it would be regarded as prima facie evidence of money laundering and exchanges would be barred from handling it). Polite society instead decides to protect privacy through managed conditional anonymity, or pseudonymity. A pseudonymous currency that is managed by a central bank but where transactions take place on a distributed ledger is much more like “RSCoin”, the cryptocurrency proposed by George Danezis and Sarah Meiklejohn at UCL [Danzis, G. and S. Meiklejohn. “Centrally Banked Cryptocurrencies”, NDSS ’16, 21-24 February 2016, San Diego, CA, USA] using Ben Laurie’s “mintettes” concept. By creating a pseudonym that is bound to the zerocash digital identity, we make it useful (provided that the binding is done by someone who trusted in the relevant transactional use cases).

Why bind it in this way? Well, there is the usual privacy paradox to be dealt with here: I want my transactions to be anonymous, but everyone else’s to be not anonymous in case they turn out to be criminals. I cannot see any way round this other than pseudonymity. There are people out there (e.g., my colleagues at Consult Hyperion) that know how to design systems that work like this, so there’s nothing stop the FATF, Bank of England, or Barclays or anyone else from starting to design the future, privacy-enhancing electronic money system that we need.

Let’s  move on. For certain purposes, pseudonymity might be deemed insufficient (e.g., KYC) and so that nym layer is needed too. This means we need to bind the pseudonym to real-world legal entity. A bank is a good place to form this binding, since they’ve already done the KYC and know who I am. So I give present my pseudonym to them and they can bind it to my “real” name to form a nym. In the example below, Barclays know who I really am, and I can present my Barclays nym where needed, but most transactions with counterparties take place at the pseudonymous layer and I can present my Vodafone pseudonym “Neuromancer” there if I want to. My counterparty doesn’t know that I am Dave Birch, only that Vodafone know who (and presumably, where) I am. For the overwhelming majority of day-to-day transactions, this is more than adequate. This layered approach (show below) seems to me a viable vision of a working infrastructure. Few transactions in the top layer (for privacy), most transactions in the middle layer, few transactions at the lower layer.

Anonymity and Levels


So in this made-up example, Barclays know my “real” identity and Vodafone knows a persistent pseudonym tied to my phone number. (Of course, I could go to Barclays and choose to bind my Vodafone identity to my Barclays identity, but we don’t need to think about this sort of thing here.) I’m going to reflect on how these bindings might work in practice more in the future, but for now I want to circle back to that opening concern about losing the anonymity of cash. Here’s another version of that meme that I read I day or two ago.

Cash—the familiar, anonymous paper money and metallic coins that most of us grew up using—isn’t just convenient, it’s also a powerful shield for our autonomy and our privacy.

From Cash Means Freedom, Which Is Why So Many Officials Hate It – Reason.com

It really isn’t. Your privacy is being taken away because of Facebook, people wearing Snapchat shades and drones, not because of debit cards. And none of this has anything to do with dictatorship. I wouldn’t want to live in the America of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” whether it had anonymous payments or not.  I understand the concerns of those concerned with privacy (as I am) that there might be an inevitable tendency for a government to want to trespass on the pseudonymous infrastructure in the name of money laundering or terrorism, but that’s a problem that needs to be dealt with by society, not by technology. I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I do know that we need to get the conversation started in a more sophisticated way.

Enough with the “Britcoin” already!

Yesterday we were chatting about the Governor of the Bank of England’s comments about central bank digital currency. I said I thought this was a good thing. Other people think the same.

The new Positive Money report on Digital Cash recommends that central banks should issue digital cash for six main reasons: it widens the range of options for monetary policy, it can make the financial system safer, it can encourage innovation in the payment system, it can recapture a portion of seigniorage, it can help to develop alternative finance businesses and it can improve financial inclusion.

From Are central banks a relic of the Industrial Revolution? | Consult Hyperion

As it happens, Dr. Ben Broadbent, who deputy governor of monetary policy at the BofE, appeared before the Lords economic affairs committee today. He was scheduled to

“explore the prospect of a central bank digital currency and the effect it could have on commercial banks”.

From House of Lords asks BofE deputy governor: Time for ‘Britcoin’?

This was part of a session that also included evidence from my good friend Simon Taylor, formerly of Barclays Bank, and the noted financier Blythe Masters who is in charge of Digital Asset Holdings (DAH) and you can see it all online here.








OK, so far so good. I’ve written about this topic in exhausting detail before, and the truth is I’m rather a fan of a strategic and planned shift towards digital currency. But the article goes on to say…

Earlier this year Broadbent floated the idea of using distributed ledger technology to enable individuals to hold digital currency accounts with the central bank.

From House of Lords asks BofE deputy governor: Time for ‘Britcoin’?

Surely use or otherwise of distributed ledgers is tangential and irrelevant to the issue of digital currency. The payment mechanism has nothing to do with the currency. So, if Dr. Broadbent means that the Bank is thinking of using a shared ledger to manage personal accounts for individuals, where account transfers are settled instantly in central bank balances, then all to the well and good.

I simply do not see the efficiency of “a digital form of legal tender” as being evidence that the government might issue a UK cryptocurrency as some in the Bitcoin world have said.

From Britcoin or Brit-PESA? | Consult Hyperion

On the other hand, if Dr. Broadbent means that the Bank his going to set up a shared ledger that will be implemented using a blockchain that incentivises consensus-forming work with an on-chain asset (i.e., a Bitcoin-like Britcoin) then I think he must have been inadequately briefed. Why on Earth would a central bank abandon its money supply management duties to a cryptographic algorithm? That makes no sense at all.

Since the latter explanation is implausible — and if you listen to his evidence to the Lords you will notice that deputy governors of the Bank of England are very well-briefed indeed — the only explanation for the “Britcoin” tag is journalists confusing digital currency and cryptography and jumbling up the use of double-permissionless shared ledgers with double-permissioned shared ledgers. I suppose it’s an easy mistake to make, so let’s put it to bed once and for all. Here is  a handy cut-out-n-keep guide:

Birch-Brown-Parulava Colour


Would the Bank of England get behind a Sterling-backed Bitcoin? I think not. In fact, I think I’m coming round to Robert Sam’s thinking about the role of Bitcoin in the greater scheme of things with respect to the co-evolution of money and technology. Robert wrote a very good note about this called “Some crypto quibbles with Threadneedle Street” in response to one of the early Bank of England research notes about Bitcoin back in 2014, suggesting that, as he put it, “digital currency with a deterministic money supply function” is not a feature but a limitation of early cryptocurrency designs (and that a capped supply function such as Bitcoin’s is a “bug” on economic grounds).  

As to the key question of whether a central bank or someone else should provide money, Robert alludes to the problem with the marginal cost of the production of competing private monies, what I often refer to in blog posts and talks as the big problem of small change. The problem is this. If privately produced money is successful as a means of exchange and earns a profit for its producer in the form of seigniorage (it is hard to see how cash replacement can earn transaction fees so in the long term I imagine these to be asymptotic to zero) then it will invite competitors and those competitors, provided the monies they produce are reasonable substitutes for each other, will drive down the cost of the private money to its marginal cost of production. In our digital world, however, the marginal cost of production is to all intents and purposes zero and so that private companies will bail and only the state can deliver the a sustainable money as a means of exchange (remember, this has nothing to do with it being a currency or not).  

Hence it is very difficult to imagine how competing private currencies that are nothing more than direct substitutes for national fiat currencies can obtain any traction at all. This nudges me further towards thinking that if the imperfections of fiat currency are to be addressed in the free market it will be by currencies that are more closely linked to the communities that use them and that embody some values of those communities. I often use the example of a gold-backed interest-free electronic currency for the Islamic diaspora as a simple thought experiment, a sort of hard ECU for the new millennium, a currency that will be widely used but never exist in physical form.  But that’s for another time.

Suppose, however, that we stay with fiat currency and central banks. Now, if Bitcoin is to be used in that role (i.e. as a medium of exchange) it’s volatility is undesirable but that does not mean that it needs to display the long-term stability that is required of a store of value. That’s a different function of money and can be implemented in a different way. It does however mean that Gresham’s Law will come in to play and drive Bitcoins out of the marketplace (to speculators, at least in the short term) and that no-one will hold them for transaction purposes. As far as I can tell, this is where we are now anyway.  

So what does all of this mean? Well I’m not sure I have any more insight into this than any other commentators but my take on it is that while the marginal cost of production of Bitcoin is undeniably higher than the marginal cost of production of other kinds of private money, that doesn’t really mean anything because Bitcoin will never be used as money in the same way. On the other hand it does mean that it is hard to imagine why anyone who wants to produce private money, and in particular a digital version of a fiat currency, will use it even if they want to use a shared ledger for other reasons (something I personally favour). On the contrary, since we have no reason to suspect that the proof-of-work and blockchain structure is the best consensus mechanism, it seems more likely that if (say) the Bank of England were to decide to implement a digital sterling, then it is highly likely that they would use some other mechanism that relies on validators (e.g., commercial banks) rather than miners. Let’s come back to this in a minute.

I don’t think there’s ever going to be a Britcoin. Central-bank digital currency is about balances and an appropriately private protocol for moving value between accounts. My prediction is that this would look more like the bastard child of Ripple and M-PESA than a blockchain cryptocurrency with a 1-1 reserve in Sterling. And guess what…

As I was sitting down to finish off this post, what should flow in through the internet tubes but  Bank of England Staff Working Paper No. 605 by John Barrdear and Michael Kumhof, “The macroeconomics of central bank issued digital currencies”. This is referred to in Dr. Broadbent’s evidence to the House of Lords. It says that (amongst other things) that 

We study the macroeconomic consequences of issuing central bank digital currency (CBDC) — a universally accessible and interest-bearing central bank liability, implemented via distributed ledgers, that competes with bank deposits as medium of exchange. In a DSGE model calibrated to match the pre-crisis United States, we find that CBDC issuance of 30% of GDP, against government bonds, could permanently raise GDP by as much as 3%, due to reductions in real interest rates, distortionary taxes, and monetary transaction costs. Countercyclical CBDC price or quantity rules, as a second monetary policy instrument, could substantially improve the central bank’s ability to stabilise the business cycle.

Did you see that? Permanently raise GDP by as much as 3%. Scatchamagowza. Permanently raise GDP by as much as 3%. Why aren’t we doing it right now! Let’s draw a line under the money of the past and focus on the money of the future.

Money Typology v2


I’ve read the working paper and while I don’t understand the economic model at the heart of it (I have no idea what “credit cycle shocks policy rate corridors” are) I do understand the implications and the observations of the authors. I have come to similar conclusions but from the technological direction. Since the observations of the Bank from an economic perspective correlate so closely with my observations from the technological perspective (I think I may have mentioned that I’m writing a book about this at the moment) I think I’ll finish here just by highlighting a few key points that I have mentioned on the blog before.

  1. A monetary regime with central bank-issued national digital currency (i.e., digital fiat) has never existed anywhere, a major reason being that the technology to make it feasible and resilient has until now not been available. 

  2. The monetary aspects of private digital currencies (a competing currency with an exogenous predetermined money supply) are undesirable from the perspective of policymakers. Also the phrase “digital currency” is perhaps a regrettable one as it may invite a number of misunderstandings among casual readers.

  3. Digital fiat means a central bank granting universal, electronic, 24 x 7, national currency denominated and interest-bearing access to its balance sheet. The Bank says that they envisage the majority of transaction balances will continue to be held as deposits with commercial banks and observes as I did above that digital currency has nothing to do with shared ledgers, distributed ledgers or blockchains.

  4. The cheapest alternative for running such a system would clearly be a fully centralised architecture (M-PESA in Keyna is the obvious example) but as the Bank notes this will come with increased resiliency risks that are likely to be deemed unacceptable. However, options that are distributed but permissioned would provide an improvement in the efficiency of settlement and serve to improve resiliency relative to the status quo, both of which would represent a reduction in cost the real economy.

  5. The key feature of such a  permissionless shared ledger system is that the entire history of transactions is available to all verifiers and potentially to the public at large in real time. It would therefore provide vastly more data to policymakers including the ability to observe the response of the economy to shock sort of policy changes almost immediately.

There is no sane argument against digital fiat. Let’s get on with it. And let’s have no limit on the number of different currencies that the ledger might hold.

Cryptocentralbankdigitalcurrency, or something similar

In the speech that the Governor of the Bank of England eh, Mark Carney, didn’t give to the Mansion House in June he devoted some considerable time to the general topic of shared ledger technology, even going so far as to say that

In the extreme, a [shared ledger] for everyone could open the possibility of creating a central bank digital currency.

From Mark Carney: Enabling the FinTech transformation – revolution, restoration, or reformation?

I am not sure that I completely follow Mr Carney’s logic here and I don’t have the benefit of the expert advice that he must have received in connection with this statement but as far as I can tell, there are two entirely separate issues to examine here. The use of the distributed ledger for RTGS, which is the context in which it is mentioned earlier in Mr. Carney’s speech, is wholly unrelated to the provision of a central bank electronic currency and whether it might or might not be a good idea for the Bank of England to create such is nothing to do with the technology.

I suspect that the confusion may have arisen because of the tendency amongst management consultants (and others) to conflate the two entirely different kinds of electronic money: a crypto currency and a digital currency are very different things. If Mr Carney were genuinely suggesting that one of the scenarios under consideration by the Bank of England is that it abandons its responsibility for managing the creation of money and instead turns to a crypto currency, even if it is a crypto currency that is produced as a byproduct of a double permissionless shared ledger spawned by the Bank of England itself, then the value of that currency would not only be beyond political control it would be beyond the Bank’s control and one might imagine the Bank to be somewhat redundant in such circumstances.

The Bank of England is absolutely right to be exploring this new technology and I certainly think that it has something to offer. But that does not mean that the Bank of England is going to start using Bitcoin as a settlement system or that bitcoins will replace Sterling!

From RTGS NBG OMG SOS SLT PDQ SLAP | Consult Hyperion

On the other hand if Mr Carney were genuinely suggesting that one of the scenarios under consideration by the Bank of England is that it creates a digital currency, then I say more power to him. I cannot think of a single reason why such a digital currency would be a crypto currency or why it would be in any way related to the shared ledger used to process  the payments, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a cracking idea. A digital currency platform with right APIs in place (providing risk-free, genuinely instant and zero-cost transfers between accounts with final settlement in central bank balances) would be an amazing platform for a Digital Britain. 

Blockchain as a public technology service

When people say “blockchain” they mean different things. And some of the things they mean are just absolutely, categorically different. Implications of public open blockchain designs and private blockchain designs vary drastically. I emphasis this distinction because it is key – the different designs assume and imply totally different things.

Both types are important but for different reasons, for different markets and for different use cases. I think we have passed the time when “Bitcoin bad – Blockchain good” seemed an eye opener. What this kind of argument did is it drew the attention of financial incumbents from the Bitcoin-like permissionless space to the private, permissioned space. Which makes sense for their business models. But I think they are not paying enough attention to the permissionless space. I think you are not either!

A brave slide from the Consensus conference in New York this year (unfortunately, can’t remember the name of the speaker! – let know and I’ll update), where I chaired the panel on post-trade and my colleague Dave Birch chaired panels on Identity. This illustrates that “Bitcoin bad, Blockchain good” is not set in stone.

I bet you hadn’t anticipated such a steep rise of Ethereum (the price of native Ethereum currency soared 10 times from the beginning of 2015 and Ethereum’s market cap reached 1.5 billion dollars). You may have even missed the creation of the first human-free organisation. Even if you try to keep an eye on the public blockchain world, you only get reminded of its existence when Bitcoin price surges to its 2-year high (it now trades at over 700$) and all the mainstream media cover this.

Both public and private shared ledgers (Blockchains) are essentially shared book-keeping (and computing) systems, one class – open for everyone to use (public), another – restricted to a certain group of members (private). And this is it. Open for everyone to use means lower entry barriers, it means identity-free and regulation-free shared book-keeping (and computing). What could be restricted by identity policies and financial regulations goes around this. You can, say, restrict a person from buying bitcoins by setting high KYC requirements to online exchanges (for users not to be able to change dollars for bitcoins if they are not KYC’d). You can even cut his or her internet connection. You can issue a court order to close a business that accepts bitcoins as money. And so on and so forth.

A lot of this effort looks similar to trying to stop the Internet, but I suppose the regulators can dream!

Public technology service and native digital rights

“Proof-of-work is inefficient”. So what? Let it go! Think of what’s the idea behind it and what it tries to achieve, regardless of this inefficiency. Regardless – because even if proof-of-work is not ideal, there are other permissionless technologies already developed and many more that are work in progress. Some of best minds in the world are looking to provide the benefits of permissionless shared ledger environment without the drawbacks of original Bitcoin’s proof-of-work. Just assume that they will solve that problem and move your thinking on.

What the blockchain delivers is permissionless book-keeping (and computing) public technology service (with the unchangeable and transparent transaction history as an incredibly valuable side effect). When I say “public service”, I do not mean that a company or public organisation provides it, I mean technology itself and collaborative user effort provide it. In a sense – everyone and no one. The protocol acts as the service provider.

And this is crucial. In traditional financial world, the basic value transfer layer that cryptocurrencies (i.e. everyone and no one) provide as a public technology service, is provided by companies – service providers, and is not accessible to anyone. For example, PayPal provides digital value transfer service.

Here I want to make a point that permissionless cryptocurrency systems have a promise of a digital environment in which value transfer is intrinsic, embedded on the protocol level – and so, for users the ability to make a transfer could become what I call a native digital right. Just to give you an analogy (it’s not a very accurate analogy but you’ll like it!) – take a guess what you see on the picture below. Well, it’s a standard residential elevator in my mother country Georgia, where you need to pay every time you use it! Up and down. Every time up, every time down!

Georgian elevator. Each time you go up and down, you need to pay!

So maybe we all (all internet users) live in our kind of Georgia, where every time we want to make a deal (economic agreement) in the online world we have to go through a cumbersome process and pay an unreasonable fee (each time!) for it. We need to get our bag out, fill in our card details, merchant’s acquirer (if it’s a merchant – even more obstacles with peer transfers) needs to send a request, card issuer needs to approve the transaction etc. Our today’s economic life online is based on this very complex e-commerce domain. And to me, it looks a lot like Georgian elevator. Think about it: on top of the obvious, that elevator only accepts certain denominations of Georgian coins – very specific, and is broken every once in a while – so even if you want to use a paid elevator sometimes you just can’t. So familiar.

How great would it be if we had a native digital right to make a value transfer online that noone could take from us (or grant us!), on a protocol level. How many applications could be built on top (at Consult Hyperion we call them SLAPPs -shared ledger applications)!

Persistence of permissionless

At the heart of the public shared ledgers is value transfer. This is because in order to assure the liveliness and self-sufficiency of the system, while providing non-restricted access to it, there needs to be an intrinsic economic incentive for those who maintain it. In other words, there should be a positive value to maintaining consensus. Most public shared ledgers for this reason can be described as currencies (decentralised cryptocurrencies) because they provide this incentive as a reward on the ledger in the ledger’s own “money”.

The canonical example of such a decentralised cryptocurrency is, of course, Bitcoin (remember, there are hundreds of them though!).  As Bitcoin was intended to exist and evolve out of the reach of regulatory, corporate or any other centralised command, the technology includes mechanisms that ensure it persistently “survives” and proves its robustness and self-sufficiency. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Bitcoin maximalist)

This persistence is a differentiating characteristic of a public shared ledger system. The technology does not need people at tables making decisions in order to survive, it is “permissionless” (nevertheless, the way it evolves to an extent is influenced by “people at the tables” – just different people).

Virtual economy

Potentially the principal implication of this persistence is the permissionless ascent of alternative virtual economy on top of decentralised protocols. Cryptocurrencies are not just a new form of payment – but rather, it’s a potential foundation for a new virtual economy, with new forms of economic interactions coming into place. When I say “new”, I don’t mean substitutive – I mean additional.

Virtual economic activity could become something fundamental to the Internet. Similar to the way the ability to communicate transformed into the ability to communicate over the Internet – it could grow into the ability to make friction-less economic arrangements (“economically” communicate) in the virtual world.

Thanks to the shared ledger technology and “smart contracts” innovation, not only the emergence of alternative economy is permissionless (and so – non-stoppable), but if it happens at certain scale, the very nature of economic relationships in this economy could be drastically different from what we are used to. A good depiction of such transformation is content monetisation on the web through the use of “invisible” micropayments. Another good example is seamless online payments in video games:

Breakout Coin provides for seamless in-game payments anywhere in the world, while the blockchain technology behind it, Breakout Chain, uses smart contracts and sidechains to enforce these financial agreements between parties.

From http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/poker-gaming-token-breakout-coin-opens-crowdsale-bittrex-1565331

Shared ledger technology could even turn our things (as in “Internet of Things”) into active economic agents through smart contracts.

Public shared ledger technology may help to turn a big part of our (as it seems) non-economic life into an economic activities. 

Although there are many “if” in that, we should not dismiss this possibility quite yet and keep an eye on the permissionless space. You can observe or get involved, but it would be a mistake to put your head in the sand and deny that something incredible is happening.

We might want an irreversible anonymous blockchain but not for irreversible anonymous payments

I think I’ll just read John Lanchester’s superb piece about bitcoin in the London Review of Books one more time. It’s hard to choose a favourite part of such an excellent article, but if I was pressed to do so, I suppose it would be this part:

David Birch is the author of a fresh, original and fascinatingly wide-ranging short book about developments in the field, Identity Is the New Money. His is the best book on general issues around new forms of money, and new possibilities generated by blockchain technology.

From John Lanchester · When Bitcoin Grows Up: What is Money? · LRB 21 April 2016

John is much too kind. And is a much better writer than I am, which is why his piece is so good. His basic question about where we are going next is fascinating and has been at the heart of some heated debates that I’ve been involved in recently, including a stand-up with a bunch of very clever people at the European Blockchain Congress in London.

Arguing with smart people is how I learn


My preferred method of accelerated learning is arguing with smart people, and the Congress delivered them in spades. But before I come back to this particular argument, let’s just frame the big picture. First of all, no-one would deny that the bitcoin blockchain is a triumph of technology and engineering and innovation and ingenuity. Statistically, almost no-one uses it, but that’s by the by.

“The total addressable market of people who want to buy bitcoin is very, very thin,”

From What a Tech Startup’s Pivots Say About Bitcoin’s Future | American Banker

Indeed. And most of them aren’t in America or any other developed market. Why? Well, bitcoin is a super-inefficient form of digital currency that was designed to solve one problem (uncensorability). If I’m trying to get my last few dollars out of Caracas before the power is shut off permanently then bitcoin might provide a rickety bridge to US Dollars, but if I’m trying to pay for a delicious burrito at Chipotle then bitcoin is pointless. However, and this is what the argument at the Congress (in the picture above) made me think about, there may be other factors that mean the bitcoin blockchain will obtain mass market traction.

What factors? Well, here are two that were touched on during the discussion pictured above, together with my more considered reflections on them.

One factor might be irreversibility. I think we all understand that you can’t build an irreversible payment system on top of a reversible payment system (such as direct debits in the UK) but you can build a reversible payment system (which is what society actually wants) on top of an irreversible one. That’s a good argument for having an fast, free and irreversible payment system that can be built on to provide a variety of different payment schemes suited to particular marketplaces. In the UK we already have this, it’s called the Faster Payment Service (FPS). Once the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) has finished opening up access to FPS and once FPS can be accessed efficiently through the “XS2A” Application Programming Interaces (APIs) that will be put in place by the Second Payment Services Directive (PSD2), then we ought to be able to unleash some creativity in the developer community and perhaps build a reversible payment scheme on top of this irreversible infrastructure (I’m not the only genius to have thought of this: MasterCard are one of the bidders). Then it wouldn’t matter whether the scheme used the bitcoin blockchain or the FPS or NPP in Australia or TCH in the US or Ripple or anything else: the choice would come down to price and performance. Perhaps bitcoin would then be a choice, although I’m not sure about it.

Another factor might be anonymity. No-one who actually thinks about it wants anonymity. What they want is privacy. But there is a similar asymmetry as in the case of irreversibility. You can’t build an anonymous system on top of a non-anonymous system but you could build a privacy-enhancing transaction system on topic of an anonymous system and since I’m rather wedded to the idea of private payment systems, I find this an interesting combination. Again, would bitcoin be a choice for this? That’s not clear to me at all.

What if those factors turn out to be important enough to build new services, but not for creating a currency? This would support the view that a blockchain, although not necessarily the bitcoin blockchain, might well be the shared security service that society needs to anchor a new generation of online transactional services. As time goes by, this strikes me as a more and more interesting possibility. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago.

Dr. Wright says “The mining of bitcoin is a security service that alone creates no wealth”. So to return to the point above, the sheer volume of mining going on (provided it does not become concentrated) means that there is a very, very secure piece of infrastructure out there. This infrastructure may be used to “anchor” all sorts of new services that need security as I said above. Some of them may be payments (as the Lightning folks hope) but most of them will not be.

From Mining for what? | Consult Hyperion

So, to get back to John Lanchester’s piece, where might we be going next? I’m pretty sure that we’ll soon see another more efficient blockchain that will untangle the cryptocurrency from the carrier by providing some other incentive for mining (perhaps more like Ethereum, who knows). This, the Watt blockchain that will replace the Newcomben blockchain that we have now, could well be the new supranational security infrastructure that, as some claim, will be as important as the Internet itself because it will provide the security layer that the Internet should have had in the first place.

Shared ledger applications and the Bouvier-Sams boundary

Way, way back in October 2015 (and that’s a million in blockchain years) I read a piece by Pascal Bouvier. It contained an interesting term.

Robert Sams inspired this post. As we were discussing stacks (software, IT) and the draw backs of the bitcoin blockchain architecture  recently in London, we slowly gravitated towards a new term… Consensus Computer (CC).

From A New Framework For Distributed Ledgers Or Dare I Say Consensus Computers (CC) | FiniCulture

Having finished working on our four layer shared ledger model with my colleagues Steve Pannifer and Salome Parulava at CHYP and having used that model with clients in a few different countries to help management begin to formulate strategies around shared ledgers, and the blockchain, I thought it might be interesting to add this (i.e., Robert/Pascal’s formation) to our model to see if helped us to think more clearly and have more effective communications.

It did.

So here’s the new version of Birch-Brown-Parulava four layer shared ledger model with the Bouvier-Sams boundary (as I now call it) in place.

BPP New Four Layer CHYP

I’ve now used this with a few groups to help them to think about the potential for “smart contracts” in a variety of real-world applications and it’s proved rather useful so I think we’re going to stick with it for a while. By encouraging people to see smart contracts as applications, I think it sets up a different context for conversation. Smart contracts are not really contracts (or smart). Indeed, as my good friend Gideon Greenspan pointed out yesterday, you wouldn’t necessarily store contracts on a blockchain anyway.

As mentioned earlier, R3CEV’s Corda product has adopted this third approach, storing hashes on a blockchain to notarize contracts between counterparties, without revealing their contents. This method can be used both for computer-readable contract descriptions, as well as PDF files containing paper documentation.

From Four genuine blockchain use cases | MultiChain

When you think about smart contracts as a new class of application, however, you begin to see what the new architecture can bring to the party. The ability to execute general purpose code on the consensus computer means that, just as the ability to executer general purpose code on conventional computers did,  people will create some amazing things that we can’t imagine right now. I’m looking forward to that, and I’ll be talking about this sort of thing on the Distributed Ledger Technology panel this afternoon Cards & Payments Australia, hope you can join us.

Mining for what?

(Updated 6th May with reference to post by Dr. Craig Wright.)

As I am sure you know, the security of the bitcoin blockchain rests on a consensus protocol that includes a proof-of-work algorithm, and executing this algorithm (which is computationally very intensive) has become known as “mining” by analogy to gold mining (because of the bitcoin reward for the activity). Hence the idea of bitcoin miners.

On the edge of a tiny Chinese town is a strange building where you can get an insight into the future – and only a handful of people know what is happening inside.

From BBC – Future – We looked inside a secret Chinese bitcoin mine

By complete coincidence, on the very day that this story about a secret Chinese bitcoin mine was published on the BBC, I ran into the secret Chinese bitcoin miner himself at a not-at-all secret hotel in New York.

Secret Chinese Bitcoin Miner

Yes, it was Chandler Guo! As you may recall, Chandler won the coveted Toast D’Or at last year’s Money 2020 in Las Vegas (you can read the full story about it here) because he asked the best question from the floor.

Money2020 Toast and More

Anyway, he told me not to mention where the secret mine is, so I won’t, but it was interesting hearing him talk (as it always is) about how mining is going and the dynamics in the sector. Chandler mentions in passing in the BBC article that about three-quarters of the world’s bitcoin mining equipment is in China and that he is currently building a bitcoin mine that will produce about a third of all the bitcoins. What will happen to these bitcoins is anyone’s guess.

“The total addressable market of people who want to buy bitcoin is very, very thin,”

From What a Tech Startup’s Pivots Say About Bitcoin’s Future | American Banker

Indeed. And most of them aren’t in America or any other developed market. But what if it turns out that bitcoins aren’t useful as money at all, but as “anchors” for a variety of new and innovative cryptography-based services (one of which may be payments). The bitcoins will be useful because of the sheer volume of mining going on (since the security of the system rests of mining), not because they are coins representing any actual value.

Wait, what? Bitcoins might be valuable because they are not money? Well, yes.

I’ve said before, in my usual soundbite twitter-centric superficial and aphoristic way, that the future of money isn’t bitcoin and the future of bitcoin isn’t money. We don’t need to go into why I think this, although I will say that I think my early analysis of the technology for out clients has stood up pretty well over time. I touched on the topic again last month in a blog post “Is Bitcoin Money?” where I again said “will money as we know it be replaced by bitcoin? I sincerely doubt it” after a discussion about the functions of money. I started thinking about this again during a couple of the discussions at Consensus 2016 and then some pointed me towards a discussion thread about whether bitcoin is money or not. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in reading it, but as I was bored on a plane I started to scroll down. It became mildly more interesting when someone mentioned John Lanchester’s piece in the London Review of Books. You remember, the one where he says “David Birch is the author of a fresh, original and fascinatingly wide-ranging short book about developments in the field, Identity Is the New Money. His is the best book on general issues around new forms of money, and new possibilities generated by blockchain technology”. (Which reminds me, I must write a blog post on John’s excellent piece…)

Anyway, while I skimmed some of the arguments, the core of the discussion was that an economic adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the UK Labour Party, said that money is credit and bitcoin isn’t credit so it isn’t money. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about this (since it is easy to envisage non-credit monies), but that’s not my point. He also makes a point about trust, which is a good one and similar to a point made in a Forbes piece that I read a while back.

Why should anyone have more trust in a digital currency created by an anonymous group of coders accountable to no-one than in a democratically-elected government accountable to everyone? Why is an essentially feudal governance model “safer” than a democratic one?

From Bitcoin: In Technology We Trust (Maybe) – Forbes

So far so familiar to people I bore senseless about this stuff at parties. Then it got a lot more interesting when my old chum Izabella Kaminska from the FT stepped into the fray, pointing to something that Craig Wright (the man who may or may not be Satoshi Nakamoto) wrote on the topic.

It’s the first time anyone in the bitcoin world has actually made a compelling argument, with historical references. First, he describes bitcoin not as a currency or a commodity but as a security service.

From Tax Research UK » The problems with Bitcoin

I had not read the Wright piece before, so I had a very quick glance and then bookmarked it to read later. Unfortunately, there was no later as Mr. Wright has now canned his blog, but a correspondent found it using the wayback machine. Dr. Wright says “The mining of bitcoin is a security service that alone creates no wealth”. So to return to the point above, the sheer volume of mining going on (provided it does not become concentrated) means that there is a very, very secure piece of infrastructure out there. This infrastructure may be used to “anchor” all sorts of new services that need security as I said above. Some of them may be payments (as the Lightning folks hope) but most of them will not be. Now, while I think it unlikely that the bitcoin blockchain will be the final form of this infrastructure, that’s no reason not to experiment with it, in which case bitcoins will continue to have value even if no-one is using them to buy mundane goods or services.

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