作者: NOAM COHEN
MONEY is accumulated, traded and transferred online every day, but can there be a form of currency that exists only online and yet has real-world value?
That is the premise of Bitcoin, an open-source virtual currency system that since 2009 has grown to a market worth more than $100 million.
But the past few weeks have shown that a virtual currency can be just as vulnerable as the paper kind. Bitcoin accounts have been subject to hacking and theft; the currency itself experienced a bubble and a crash. And at least one group that was collecting donations in Bitcoins has decided against using them because of possible legal entanglements.
Gavin Andresen, who is the lead developer of the open-source software that operates the currency, said in an interview from his home in Amherst, Mass.: “I expected it to have lots of speed bumps along the way — but I didn’t expect there to be so many speed bumps in a row.”
There are several appeals to the idea of an online currency. The standard way to ensure the validity of online transactions, according to Jerry Brito, a technology expert at George Mason University, is “to have an intermediary to keep the ledger,” that is, a service like PayPal or a credit card company that takes a percentage of the transaction.
网络虚拟货币有很多吸引人的地方.根据George Mason大学的技术专家Jerry Brito所说,标准的保证在线交易合法的办法是找个中间机构记好每一笔交易. 就像Paypal或信用卡公司,他们会收取一定比例的费用.
A virtual currency would not need an intermediary. It would also make it harder for authorities to track transactions (particularly appealing for gambling sites or other quasi-legal activities).
Bitcoin began as a kind of thought experiment. In 2009, an anonymous programmer published a paper proposing a virtual currency that would elegantly solve many of the problems surrounding currency that exists only on the Internet, including the main one, that the money would simply be copied like, say, music files, and plummet in value.
Another part of the challenge was to create a currency without having to resort to a central bank to issue the currency and track the transactions. In other words, the transactions would be genuinely “peer-to-peer” rather than pass though a virtual bank.
The solution of the Bitcoin programmer, who wrote under the name Satoshi Nakamoto, was to ensure that each “coin” was its own certificate of authenticity — that the coin, in essence, would be nothing more than that certificate.
In the Bitcoin system, a new coin is produced whenever a computer can calculate an answer to a difficult problem, and then attaches that answer to a digital record of every transaction of every Bitcoin ever traded — a breathtakingly large amount of information to carry around in order to buy a pack of gum, but in a time when information can zip around the Internet, not too much to ask. Anyone would be free to create a new coin, within proscribed supply limits, by having a computer do the work needed to prove that it was in fact a valid Bitcoin.
“The incentives are right, they are a check that everyone is following the rules,” said Mr. Andresen. “Early adopters want it to succeed, because they already own the currency. And if you generate Bitcoins no one thinks is valid, you have wasted a lot of computer time.”
In fact, Bitcoin is a rarity for a currency in that it is neither a so-called fiat currency — one like dollars, which are valuable because the government says they are — nor is it a specie currency, one that gets its value because it can be converted into a precious metal like silver or gold.
But why would a Bitcoin have value if it is only a stream of numbers, unsupported by government fiat or by some underlying asset?
“Why does any tool have value?” Mr. Andresen asked. “It is valuable because it is useful.”
Starting almost as soon as the coins were introduced, they have been traded for dollars at online exchanges, serving as a crude measure of the currency’s popularity and health (and also giving a market where owners can trade in Bitcoins for real dollars).
After two years, there are seven million of these “coins” in circulation and the rate of increase — currently 50 coins are added every 10 minutes — will slow each year until the number tops out at 21 million coins around 2025. The coins, which trade for about $17 each at online exchanges, have a cumulative value of about $100 million. “I do think of it as the market cap of Bitcoin,” said Mr. Andresen. Today, a list of businesses that accept Bitcoin currency is a motley collection of companies on the fringe of the computer world, groups that conduct gambling or the like, and, notably, the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, which accepts contributions in Bitcoins. You certainly can’t stock the pantry or furnish your home with Bitcoins.
When reached by phone, a bookstore owner on the list, Sonny Saul, from Woodstock, Vt., said that he had had the account for only a week and a half and that he had “no practical experience with it yet, other than your phone call.”
我们打电话给一个 Woodstock的书店店主Sonny Saul,他说他已经建立BTC账户一周半了,除了接到这个电话,没啥别的动静.
Mr. Saul said his son was a fan of Bitcoins and had set up an account for him; he said he was intrigued.
“I might be able to bypass Visa and Mastercard — they take 2 to 3 percent on every transaction,” he said, adding that if it “eliminates the need for a central bank — I am interested philosophically how it would affect society.”
A Hungarian woman, Judit Whelan, 33, who sells pet accessories at the Critter Casual and was persuaded to accept the coins by her husband, a computer programmer, said that she had more success.
一位33岁的匈牙利女士, Judit Whelan,她在 Critter Casual 经营一家宠物装饰品店.在她的程序员丈夫的劝说下,她开始接受BTC. 她说用接受BTC给她带来了不少生意.
“I’ve sold 24 collars, 13 leashes and 1 pair of ‘Disco Knickers’ with Bitcoin over the last few months,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The first order I had was for 42 BTC, which was worth about $40 at the time, but now those coins would be worth around $680! Originally I had a fixed Bitcoin price, but now I do a conversion based on the exchange rate.”
But the currency proved to be so unstable, Mr. Andresen said, that it became hard to use as a “unit of account.” When they began, they were worth fractions of a “penny. They rose to more than $30, a market cap of more than $210 million, and now trade roughly in the middle.
And the system has had to weather other challenges. In June alone, there have been thefts of virtual wallets that have been left unprotected on Bitcoin owners’ hard drives; the biggest case was said to involve coins with a trading value of $500,000.
Similarly, security firms say they have detected “bots” that hijack unsuspecting computers to do the calculating necessary to create new coins on other peoples’ dime.
Even more spectacularly, the largest trader of Bitcoins, the Mt.Gox exchange, said it was hacked on June 19, with certain accounts being emptied and others being used to trade imaginary Bitcoins and, in the process, drop the value of Bitcoins to pennies.
更夸张的是,最大的BTC交易网站mot gox exchange,宣布他们在6月19日受到到木马的攻击,有的账户被倒空,有的账户被用来交易虚拟的BTC,这个过程居然把BTC的价值降低到了一分钱.
In a coincidence of timing, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights advocacy group in San Francisco, announced that it would not be accepting the Bitcoins that had been donated via an account in its name, in order to avoid any legal entanglements with the service.
与此同时,Electronic Frontier Foundation,一家三番的网络公司,宣布他们不再接受BTC形式的捐赠,以避免可能的法律纠纷.
The group would be returning coins that at one time were worth $100,000 to the Bitcoin community because of the uncertain legal picture, its legal director, Cindy Cohn said. “We didn’t want to be a participant in this,” she said.
Mr. Andresen he said he imagined that after the bubbles, the currency would find enthusiasts, beyond the traders: “Anything that is purely in the electronic world,” he said. “Digital downloads, Web hosting, programming services — especially if it is international — those would be the early niches.”
Mr. Brito was optimistic about Bitcoins finding consistent users. But as with many online innovations, the early adopters tend to occupy a different, if marginal, niche.
“This is a censorship-proof currency that allows transactions to happen,” he said. “Right now what are those sort of transactions? Gambling, buying drugs — that is what is going to jumpstart it.”