Just mentioning the digital currency brings about either a passionate discussion by enthusiasts or vehement criticism that near-anonymous payments are for criminals.
While the decentralized virtual currency was slow to take hold, today Bitcoin is taken more seriously as a concept. The Financial Crimes and Enforcement Network issued guidance on virtual currency in March, a substantial milestone in emerging payments, leading to increased awareness by mainstream consumers and venture capitalists.
Andreas Antonopoulos is a serial tech entrepreneur with experience in business and financial systems technology. He has founded three Bitcoin businesses and launched several open source projects. Antonopoulos writes frequently about cryptography, open source, security and Bitcoin, and he's a permanent host on Let's Talk Bitcoin, a twice weekly Bitcoin podcast. Antonopoulos is a prolific public speaker, recently addressing the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose, Calif.
In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Antonopoulos talks about the digital currency's rise to fame and the consequences of its popularity.
PaymentsSource: What does Bitcoin's rise tell us about consumer sentiment towards the legacy payments infrastructure?
Antonopoulos: The legacy payment infrastructure has simply not evolved with the times. It is still very difficult and costly to send money between individuals domestically and even more so internationally. Cryptocurrencies remove the friction in the payment system and introduce Internet speeds to payments. The sentiment towards legacy payments is that they are slow and cumbersome, representative of a bygone era.
PaymentsSource: How has the Bitcoin ecosystemtechnology, community, investmentgrown since its inception in 2009?
Antonopoulos: All aspects of Bitcoin are showing dramatic growth, especially in 2013 when Bitcoin started acquiring mainstream awareness. It is rapidly becoming adopted by regular people, regular businesses and growing a community of followers who are more interested in its utility, rather than a libertarian ideology or distrust of corrupt banks. Bitcoin is becoming commoditized and that's a good thing.
PaymentsSource: At the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose, Calif. in May, many Bitcoin advocates, including venture capitalists, said Bitcoin has the opportunity to disrupt remittance, micropayments and philanthropy. Are there more use cases for Bitcoin?
Antonopoulos: Bitcoin's early successes will come in the areas where traditional banking and payment systems are least efficient and most expensive. International wire transfers, remittances and contractor payments are notoriously cumbersome and expensive. They will be disintermediated like the Internet did to record companies or newspapers.
Micropayments are another powerful use case. Payments less than 10 cents, impossible with today's payment systems, can enable entirely new forms of commerce and content monetization.
Most importantly though, Bitcoin can extend the global economy and banking services to the other 6 billion people who are underserved or completely neglected by international banking. Outside the U.S., billions of people have no bank accounts, no access to credit, no payment systems and no ability to connect to the international economy. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies can bring economic integration to the world.
Bitcoin is far more than money for the Internet. It has to be seen as the Internet of money.
As a set of protocols and APIs, Bitcoin allows anyone to participate in financial and banking innovation and to build new financial applications, financial instruments and transaction types. From global lotteries, to escrow systems, international payments, investments or simple retail transactions, the possibilities for incredibly novel uses are really almost endless.
PaymentsSource: It seems like Bitcoin could do a lot of good shaking up the financial services industry, but many people still worry about the digital currency's nefarious reputation. Because it's been used for the sale of illicit drugs through black markets like Silk Road, some people still refuse to take it seriously. How will the ecosystem get past this reputation?
Antonopoulos: The nefarious reputation is the direct result of sensationalism in the media. Like any powerful tool, criminals will use Bitcoin, just as they use cars to "getaway" and phones to conspire. The vast majority of the Bitcoin ecosystem is built around offering services that are useful for legitimate business and trade. Negative stereotypes are the result of lack of knowledge or deliberate misinformation, but have little basis in reality. At the end of the day, the vast majority of crime is conducted using U.S. dollars.
Unfortunately, misconceptions far outnumber the instances of informed and insightful commentary. Bitcoin is a disruptive technology and does not easily fit into the pre-conceived categories by which most commentators attempt to analyze it. The media around the early Internet also had to struggle to classify it, attempting to relate it to fax machines, TV programming or telephony.
Today Bitcoin is pigeonholed and misclassified as a payment network, a "foreign" currency, a speculative investment, a stock, a store of value, a transaction language and a protocol. It is all of those and more, but none of those classifications help to illuminate or explain. The truth is that bitcoin is revolutionary because there has never in history been a widely-adopted digital currency that is entirely decentralized. It will take a while until the full implications of that fact are absorbed. Until then, sensationalism and misconceptions are to be expected.
PaymentsSource: What other hurdles does Bitcoin face today and in the future?
Antonopoulos: Bitcoin is still in its technological infancy and will likely evolve over time. There are plenty of fundamental technical issues to solve, but Bitcoin also offers an incredibly novel way to solve them through consensus voting That's what has allowed Bitcoin to thrive so far: its ability to adjust in a fair and consensus-driven way.
PaymentsSource: And the regulatory environment?
Antonopoulos: The regulatory environment today is more effective at stifling competition from innovative payment systems than protecting consumers against massive fraud. Regulations favor large incumbents and turn a blind eye to their crimes, such as rate-rigging, money laundering and fraud closures.
PaymentsSource: Tell me about the future you envision with Bitcoin and the steps the ecosystem will have to take to get there.
Antonopoulos: The history of disruptive and useful technologies shows that mainstream adoption happens much faster than most people expect, certainly faster than a decade. For example, the PC, modems, the Internet, Linux, mobile phones and social media all achieved mainstream adoption in far less than ten years.
In the medium-term, over three to five years Bitcoin will evolve, perhaps under another name and become a major part of the global financial industry. I expect the future to consist of several cryptocurrencies, co-existing with dozens of national and supra-national currencies in the global stage.