The Top 3 Things I Learned at the Bitcoin Conference

Regulation is coming.


This past weekend I attended the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose, where over one thousand enthusiasts, developers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and, yes, lawyers gathered to chart the future of the virtual currency. Here are the top three things I learned at the conference.

Bitcoin is about more than payments

Bitcoin is an even bigger deal than I thought. While the currency is best known as a censorship-resistant and somewhat-anonymous payments system, it has the potential to be so much more.

"Ultimately bitcoins are data, and you can use a data transit protocol to transit information other than just 'I'm sending you bitcoins.' It could be 'I'm sending you a stock,' or it could be 'I'm sending you a bet,'" says Jeff Garzik, one of the six Bitcoin core developers.

Thought of this way, the Bitcoin network is a platform on top of which other layers of functionality can run, much like the Web or e-mail are protocols that run on top of the Internet's foundational TCP/IP protocol. Bitcoin therefore has the potential to spawn any number of other services that are decentralized, and thus difficult to regulate or control.

One application for such an extension to Bitcoin would be decentralized electronic markets—whether for futures contracts, sports betting, or anything else.

J.R. Willett, author of a white paper proposing such a system, explains with a thought experiment: Suppose two parties, A and B, want to bet on the future price of Google stock, and there is a third party, C, that publishes the price on the network every few minutes. A thinks the price of Google will go up and publishes a message to that effect, while B thinks it will go down and publishes a message accepting the bet.

"Now, they're interacting on a protocol layer above bitcoin; they're using a currency that's on top of bitcoin that recognizes these kinds of messages," says Willett. "So they've actually both committed and there's an agreement that everybody in the world can see."

Others on the distributed network don't know the identities of who placed the bet, but they can see that A said it would go up, and that B said it would go down, and they can see C publish the price of Google in the future.

"If the price goes up, then the whole protocol recognizes that A won that bet; the whole protocol recognizes that A now owns B's coins," says Willett.

And voila, welcome to a world of decentralized electronic futures markets. The predictions market Intrade, a darling of academic economists and political scientists, recently ceased operations after it was sued by the CFTC. Yet such a predictions market built as a peer-to-peer network on top of Bitcoin could not be easily shut down, nor would there be an operator that could run away with user's funds, as it's also alleged of Intrade.

And it's not just markets. Treating Bitcoin as a protocol would allow for a vast number of other decentralized applications, including communications messaging and broadcasting, a decentralized domain name system, and much more.

The hobbyists give way to the pros

Bitcoin to date has been the domain of geeks, gold bugs, and cypherpunks, but sensing its disruptive (and profitable) potential, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are pouring into the space.

Peter Thiel's Founders Fund last week made a $2 million investment in merchant services firm BitPay, Google Ventures recently backed bitcoin exchange Ripple, and Fred Wilson's Union Square Ventures has invested $5 million in the transactions platform Coinbase.

This transition from ideological enclave to professionalized financial network was on display at the conference's exhibit hall. Row after row was lined with the booths of professional venture-backed businesses, while nestled in between were those of the Seasteading Institute and Antiwar.com.

It's just like the late-90's rush to commercialize the Internet once entrepreneurs recognized its revolutionary potential. And just like the late '90s, the early adopters are not all fond of the gentrification.

"A year or more ago there was very much an 'Occupy' type feel to Bitcoin, where this is the anti-establishment currency, and now the establishment is getting interested in Bitcoin," says Garzik. "There is a tension and you definitely see the libertarian crypto-anarchist roots bang heads with the venture capital that's coming in right now."

One point of contention is mixing. As professional and regulated businesses enter, they are keen to tie real identities to transactions, and they are loath to touch bitcoins of unknown provenance. Many in the community rightly see this as a threat to Bitcoin's fungibility.

"If someone says, 'I will not accept these bitcoins over here because I think they are stolen funds,' then their value is different from these other bitcoins that are not necessarily stolen funds," explains Garzik. "And so some people of the crypto-anarchist, libertarian mindset feel it's very important to mix because that preserves the fungibility of Bitcoin."

Mixing is essentially laundering. It is combining bitcoins of different origins in a pool before handing them back to their owners in order to obfuscate who has which coin. Some even suggest that mixing should be built into the Bitcoin protocol itself. Businesses, to say the least, don't like the sound of that. Everyone, however, will have to accept that Bitcoin is an open source project, and it's ultimately consensus that will resolve the differences.

There's no escaping regulation

Just two days before the conference, the Department of Homeland Security seized accounts belonging to Mt. Gox, the largest Bitcoin exchange (and a major sponsor of the conference), in what looks like the beginning of a criminal enforcement. You'd think this would have put a pall on the festivities, but in a way it only served to underscore the growing professionalization of the Bitcoin ecosystem.

Mt. Gox seems to have been operating without the requisite money transmitter licenses, and DHS alleges it lied about its status as a money transmitter in bank documents. In contrast, the new Bitcoin businesses that are springing up are working with state and federal regulators to cross every T and dot every I. And panelist after panelist on the conference's "Legal and Regulatory" track explained to attendees how to comply with the law, as uncertain as it is. Dilettante time is over.

If the message wan't clear enough, the Bitcoin Foundation—which helps organize Bitcoin's development on the same model as the Linux Foundation—announced that it would be hiring a full time lawyer in Washington to represent the community's interests. The thinking is that Bitcoin businesses and users are going to be regulated even if the protocol itself can't be, so it's time to engage the regulators and policy makers before they make any hasty moves.

This willingness to lobby and work with regulators, however, was not well received by many of the old guard. As one exasperated Foundation member tweeted, "I got into Bitcoin to improve this miserable planet and ESCAPE the iron grip of privileged moneyed interests, not JOIN THEM!"

But the fact is that Bitcoin is growing up. Its revolutionary potential is greater than most have yet understood. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are seeking to professionalize and legitimizing the network, and to do that regulators will have to understand and accept it.

It's true that Bitcoin could continue to operate even if it was outlawed outright, but then it would only serve as an underworld currency, and its development would not doubt be hampered. The more subversive path may well be to let regulators create their rules for what at base is an uncontrollable system.