Friday, February 28, 2014

Why Bitcoin Matters

Marc Andreessen

Bitcoin is the first practical solution to a longstanding problem in computer science called the Byzantine Generals Problem [..] which poses the question of how to establish trust between otherwise unrelated parties over an untrusted network like the Internet.

The practical consequence of solving this problem is that Bitcoin gives us, for the first time, a way for one Internet user to transfer a unique piece of digital property to another Internet user, such that the transfer is guaranteed to be safe and secure, everyone knows that the transfer has taken place, and nobody can challenge the legitimacy of the transfer. The consequences of this breakthrough are hard to overstate.

What kinds of digital property might be transferred in this way? Think about digital signatures, digital contracts, digital keys (to physical locks, or to online lockers), digital ownership of physical assets such as cars and houses, digital stocks and bonds … and digital money.

All these are exchanged through a distributed network of trust that does not require or rely upon a central intermediary like a bank or broker. And all in a way where only the owner of an asset can send it, only the intended recipient can receive it, the asset can only exist in one place at a time, and everyone can validate transactions and ownership of all assets anytime they want.

How does this work?

Bitcoin is an Internet-wide distributed ledger [..] Anyone in the world can buy into or sell out of the ledger any time they want – with no approval needed, and with no or very low fees. The Bitcoin “coins” themselves are simply slots in the ledger, analogous in some ways to seats on a stock exchange, except much more broadly applicable to real world transactions.

The Bitcoin ledger is a new kind of payment system. Anyone in the world can pay anyone else in the world any amount of value of Bitcoin by simply transferring ownership of the corresponding slot in the ledger. Put value in, transfer it, the recipient gets value out, no authorization required, and in many cases, no fees.

That last part is enormously important. Bitcoin is the first Internetwide payment system where transactions either happen with no fees or very low fees (down to fractions of pennies). Existing payment systems charge fees of about 2 to 3 percent – and that’s in the developed world. In lots of other places, there either are no modern payment systems or the rates are significantly higher [..].

Bitcoin is a digital bearer instrument. It is a way to exchange money or assets between parties with no pre-existing trust: A string of numbers is sent over email or text message in the simplest case. The sender doesn’t need to know or trust the receiver or vice versa. Related, there are no chargebacks – this is the part that is literally like cash – if you have the money or the asset, you can pay with it; if you don’t, you can’t. This is brand new. This has never existed in digital form before [..].
Critics of Bitcoin point to limited usage by ordinary consumers and merchants, but that same criticism was leveled against PCs and the Internet at the same stage. Every day, more and more consumers and merchants are buying, using and selling Bitcoin, all around the world. The overall numbers are still small, but they are growing quickly. And ease of use for all participants is rapidly increasing as Bitcoin tools and technologies are improved. Remember, it used to be technically challenging to even get on the Internet. Now it’s not [..].

In addition, merchants are highly attracted to Bitcoin because it eliminates the risk of credit card fraud [..]. Credit card fraud is such a big deal for merchants, credit card processors and banks that online fraud detection systems are hair-trigger wired to stop transactions that look even slightly suspicious, whether or not they are actually fraudulent. As a result, many online merchants are forced to turn away 5 to 10 percent of incoming orders that they could take without fear if the customers were paying with Bitcoin [..].

And even here in the United States, a long-recognized problem is the extremely high fees that the “unbanked” — people without conventional bank accounts – pay for even basic financial services. Bitcoin can be used to go straight at that problem, by making it easy to offer extremely low-fee services to people outside of the traditional financial system [..].

Bitcoins have the nifty property of infinite divisibility: currently down to eight decimal places after the dot, but more in the future. So you can specify an arbitrarily small amount of money [..] Think about content monetization, for example. One reason media businesses such as newspapers struggle to charge for content is because they need to charge either all (pay the entire subscription fee for all the content) or nothing (which then results in all those terrible banner ads everywhere on the web). All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, there is an economically viable way to charge arbitrarily small amounts of money per article, or per section, or per hour, or per video play, or per archive access, or per news alert [..].

Another potential use of Bitcoin micropayments is to fight spam. Future email systems and social networks could refuse to accept incoming messages unless they were accompanied with tiny amounts of Bitcoin – tiny enough to not matter to the sender, but large enough to deter spammers, who today can send uncounted billions of spam messages for free with impunity [this is very interesting].

[Another] interesting use case is public payments. This idea first came to my attention in a news article a few months ago. A random spectator at a televised sports event held up a placard with a QR code and the text “Send me Bitcoin!” He received $25,000 in Bitcoin in the first 24 hours, all from people he had never met [..].  Think about the implications for protest movements.

The coming years will be a period of great drama and excitement revolving around this new technology.

For example, some prominent economists are deeply skeptical of Bitcoin, even though Ben S. Bernanke, formerly Federal Reserve chairman, recently wrote that digital currencies like Bitcoin “may hold long-term promise, particularly if they promote a faster, more secure and more efficient payment system.” And in 1999, the legendary economist Milton Friedman said: “One thing that’s missing but will soon be developed is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A – the way I can take a $20 bill and hand it over to you, and you may get that without knowing who I am.” 

Economists who attack Bitcoin today might be correct, but I’m with Ben and Milton.

So am I