Thursday, January 30, 2014
The international online gambling industry is an estimated $30bn market, and growing. More importantly for Bitcoin, it’s a global market that depends on fast, irreversible payments.
Just like a ordinary casino chip in any land-based casino, digital bitcoin provides privacy, immediacy, and payment finality. Unlike most typical consumer purchases (where returns and chargebacks are usually legitimate), a wager is a one-way transaction. Of course, you may be dissatisfied with the outcome, but that does not justify a reimbursement. The online gambling industry has struggled with this fact for years.
Plagued by chargebacks and fraudulent transactions, specialized payment methods and payment companies have sprouted up around the online casino world to address the problem of payment finality.
iGaming and bitcoinFor the first time ever, the world’s largest and most comprehensive trade event in gaming, ICE Totally Gaming 2014, will feature a half-day seminar on bitcoin in the iGaming environment on 4h February. The London-based conference represents every gambling sector: betting, bingo, casino, lottery, mobile, online, and social gaming.
Organized by Gran Via’s Willem van Oort, the seminar features two extraordinary panels: ‘Regulatory Aspects’ and ‘Bitcoin’s Competitive Edge’. I will also be speaking on the evolution and future of bitcoin as a new monetary unit.
Moderated by iGaming attorney David Gzesh, the regulatory panel will assess the compliance challenges in dealing with bitcoin payment processing applications, including currency conversion, reduced transaction costs, payment finality, Know Your Customer rules, and coin management techniques.
Panelists include; Stuart Hoegner, managing director at Gaming Counsel PC; Steve Beauregard, CEO and founder of GoCoin; and Michael Ellen, director of licensing and strategy at Alderney Gambling Control Commission.
The second panel of the day focuses on the competitive advantages offered by bitcoin in the iGaming industry and will explore potential for new games, new jurisdictional regions, and unique investment opportunities on the horizon.
Stellar panelists include; Esteban van Goor, indirect tax lawyer at PwC; Ivan Montik, CEO and founder of Softswiss; Erik Voorhees, founder of SatoshiDice; Brock Pierce, managing director at Clearstone Global Gaming Fund; Jiten Melwani, founder of Bitgame Labs; and Gabriel Sukenik, director at Coinapult.
Into the mainstreamWe are now witnessing the long-awaited arrival of mainstream online casinos and betting establishments into the bitcoin universe. This is the beginning of the second-generation bitcoin gambling sites – the first generation exemplified by sites like SatoshiDice, BitZino, and Seals With Clubs.
CoinDesk reported on Wednesday that Malta-registered casino Vera&John has become the first of the major licensed and regulated online casinos to accept bitcoin deposits. The gaming operator accepts inbound customer payments which are then processed and converted into euros via Panama-based Coinapult service.
Following a trend common among existing online poker sites like WinPoker, Vera&John will only permit wagering in national currency units. The strategy of utilizing bitcoin only as a customer payment transfer mechanism eliminates the exchange rate risk for the operator and the player.
Alternatively, if the player uses bitcoin for deposit, betting, and withdrawal, then the exchange rate risk stays with the player. Examples of that approach include CloudBet and CoinBet.
Sports betting site Cloudbet claims to have revolutionized the online betting experience by introducing the world’s most advanced bitcoin betting platform accessible from desktop and mobile devices. Users can browse an intuitive, elegant site to place immediate and discreet bets on any world event – at zero fees.
CloudBet currently deploys 100% offline cold storage for all bitcoin assets and the site has received excellent reviews.
In addition, Costa Rica-registered CoinBet offers casino gaming, poker, and sports betting all under a simple email registration with password. CoinBet claims to be the first legitimate, licensed entity to re-enter the real money online gambling space since Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker all had their sites shut down by the US Department of Justice in April 2011. However, that particular claim may actually go to Costa Rica-registered Infiniti Poker.
Unlike other regulated gambling jurisdictions issuing licenses, Costa Rica does not require operators to obtain and verify the identity of its players. On the policy of accepting US players, John Bauer, senior vice president of gaming at CoinBet, proudly emphasized:
“Look, to take away a person’s fundamental right to spend their money on whatever they choose is wrong, unconstitutional, and without question, an un-American thing to do.”He continued: “We are not here to engage in a legal debate, we are here to serve up the very first legitimate workaround to the complex online gambling laws in this US market. We are returning to Americans their freedom to choose and giving them their power back!”
Internet gambling in the US operates in a legal grey area. Other gaming operators in the near future may come to appreciate Bauer’s statement because the US jurisdiction has yet to see a clarifying test case in the matter of bitcoin-only wagering without conversion.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
One of my favorite things about bitcoin is how it’s such an all-inclusive tent.
Bitcoin attracts political idealists from the right, political idealists from the left, Silicon Valley technologists, social science academics, philosophers, capitalists, socialists, and even apolitical speculators.
Alex Payne kicked off this latest round of analysis with his blog piece: “Bitcoin, Magical Thinking, and Political Ideology”. A self-described programmer and secular humanist, Payne worked as an early engineer at Twitter building the service’s developer platform and backend infrastructure.
Mostly, he criticizes Silicon Valley for its self-indulgent hyper-capitalism that lacks meaningful solutions to real-world problems. Oh yeah, and he specifically targets Chris Dixon, Andreeseen Horowitz, and their Coinbase investment.
Chris Dixon, Andreessen Horowitz’s partner on the Coinbase board, promptly shot back in defense with “Why I’m Interested in Bitcoin“ where he disavowed himself of any libertarian ideology or “fantasies of a crypto-powered stateless future” and instead highlighted bitcoin’s technological promise in reforming the mismanaged financial system.
Personally, I prefer Marc Andreessen’s recent tribute in The New York Times, “Why Bitcoin Matters.”
The divide between ideology and technology as the driving purpose behind bitcoin permeates the bitcoin investment community and the Bitcoin Foundation’s approach to public policy. Advocating and using a non-political monetary unit is a forceful political statement. Investing in a non-political monetary unit or its infrastructure companies is an equally powerful statement.
The bitcoin network cannot be separated from the bitcoin monetary unit and if the central bank, or the Federal Reserve in the United States, provided an important function, bitcoin would be unnecessary.
Carried through to its ultimate conclusion, the bitcoin unit competes with the government’s unit in a modern version of Hayekian currency competition.
More importantly, bitcoin is money without government: just as one cannot separate the bitcoin network from the bitcoin monetary unit, one cannot separate the bitcoin network effect from its central banking implications.
Personal JourneyMy personal journey towards bitcoin began in the mid-1990s when David Chaum’s DigiCash company and technology debuted in America.
At that time, I was working in Silicon Valley at RSA Data Security’s new spin-out company, Digital Certificates International, that later became VeriSign. The new SSL encryption in Netscape browsers relied on these digital certificates for authenticating and securing web servers.
With Chaum’s DigiCash technology, for the first time ever, digital bearer features of physical cash could be emulated in software using cryptographic protocols.
This was pure genius and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
During the next two years, I started thinking through scenarios of monetizing equity mutual funds and real estate and how ideas like e-gold could be transformed into digital bearer instruments backed by gold, not just a ledger-based transfer system. I even published a research paper at the London School of Economics.
However, I quickly realized that the centralized nature of these two systems inherently gave them a limited life span due to a single point of ‘failure’ that could be used for suppression.
Predictably, the political pressures increased with DigiCash needing regulatory approval to operate as an issuing mint within a bank and then e-gold suffering a Department of Justice shutdown and asset seizure at the peak of its epic success.
My thoughts shifted to how precious metals and other commodities could be stored, assayed, and audited without revealing knowledge of their location. This proved to be a very difficult feat.
The Bitcoin Protocol Network EffectIn late 2008, five years ago, a developer named Satoshi Nakamoto devised a protocol which distributed trust across a decentralized peer-to-peer ledger and eliminated confiscation risk by replacing physical assets with a mathematical proof of work.
More than anything, it is these two features that would lead to bitcoin’s real world success because the system now had the attribute of survivability. When angels and venture capitalists invest in bitcoin-related business models, they are investing in a survivable protocol – a protocol that will survive political institutions.
Herein lies the dichotomy: how can VCs knowingly invest in a protocol that survives political institutions when it is those same political institutions that allow them to capitalise on their investments?
Money naturally operates like a virus and that makes digital bitcoin potently viral. It is viral cubed – money on the Internet with a network effect. A monetary unit does not stop expanding until it runs into artificially delineated boundaries or achieves widespread dominance.
It is naive to think that governments believe so much in competitive currencies that they would encourage and accept a digital monetary unit without a central issuer. Some smaller governments may believe in that, but only as a way to use it against certain other governments that currently have dominant monetary units.
What’s more likely is bitcoin growth in the developed world constrained by regulatory endpoints, legislative taxing powers, and bans on merchants, but only up to a certain maximum market cap for bitcoin. Sure, we’ll let it grow but not too much.
So what is that magical permissible level of adoption where going beyond that point jeopardizes central banking and monetary policy? Is it a $100 billion, $500 billion, $1 trillion market capitalization for bitcoin?
No one really knows, least of all the governments. A $1 trillion bitcoin economy may not be suppressible, but it definitely becomes a less friendly environment with respect to established political institutions.
I guess your viewpoint depends on what problem bitcoin is solving – high transaction fees and complex international remittances or the problem of central banking and the intertwining of money and state.
Fortunately, bitcoin solves for both. But, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t believe that central banks play an important and necessary role in society and also believe that bitcoin serves as a monetary solution.
I am pro venture capital. Building the bitcoin infrastructure around the world is important, but within certain jurisdictions it can also be a frustrating contradiction. The success of an investment depends less on the execution of a stellar management team and more on the degree of regulatory latitude. For venture capitalists, bitcoin is not like Facebook and Twitter where worldwide market saturation and dominance is the end game for the IPO home run.
Market saturation with bitcoin means that something else lost and it’s not a competing cryptocurrency. Therefore, it will be imperative for venture capitalists to remain astute about the evolving political landscape and agile enough in timing their exits.
Andreessen stated in The New York Times article that he’s with Ben and Milton when it comes to the promise of reliable digital currencies. However, Bernanke and Friedman were referring to digitized national units, not an alternative and independent numéraire.
The only plausible outcome may be jurisdictional competition. After World War II, wealth flowed to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.
Now, real wealth flows from the West to the East in the form of gold bullion and claims to natural resources. In the cryptocurrency future, wealth will flow to the regions that facilitate and exploit bitcoin’s massive potential for unleashing true economic growth.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Much of the media attention surrounding bitcoin exchanges has focused on the larger global players, as they are the endpoints that have the majority of bitcoin’s trading volume.
This was satisfactory in the early days of bitcoin, as global price discovery was the driving requirement – but now there is a growing need for in-country exchange transactions, due in part to prevailing regulations.
A primary example of this can be observed by analysing the role of Coinbase. With a US-only customer base for buying and selling bitcoin, Coinbase is the leading domestic exchange in the United States. If you sign up, your account identity is closely integrated with your bank or credit union for superior ease-of-use.
However, Coinbase is not really an adequate exchange for bitcoin price discovery as its bid-offer spread is derived from wholesale partners, like Bitstamp. Also, Coinbase trading participants are confined to a single region, which reflects the demand and supply from that region only.
Separate functionsPrice discovery and adoption operate as two separate functions within the global bitcoin ecosystem. The additional effort involved in establishing international exchange accounts may yield improved pricing, but at what cost?
Local country exchanges are simpler to use and they meet the needs of most local bitcoin traders. The larger international exchanges that provide two-way price quotes and accept deposit and withdrawal requests from around the world will always be around.
I predict that they will evolve into wholesale liquidity providers performing more of a clearinghouse role for the regional and domestic bitcoin exchange houses. Overall, global price discovery will be maintained.
Now, when we look at the local country exchanges, the precise role becomes slightly different: it becomes less about price discovery and more about ease of exchange and facilitating adoption.
One doesn’t go to a broker on the worldwide interbank forex market when they want to exchange pounds for dollars, they simply go to a local bank or airport currency kiosk. Increasingly, the ATMs in airports provide the best overall exchange rates for national currencies.
Similarly for bitcoin, users will tend to stay local even if that means paying a slightly higher price and commission. And, until bitcoin merchant acceptance is widespread, the localized exchanges and bitcoin ATMs provide an excellent way for global bitcoin travelers to acquire the necessary amount of local currency.
For example, some local bitcoin exchanges in Sweden have been setting up reputable physical offices for face-to-face exchanges.
Regarding person-to-person exchanges arranged at selected meeting places, I have written about LocalBitcoins.com before. They offer an incredibly useful service which will complement, and in many cases precede, local bitcoin exchange companies.
Local focusThe marketplace for bitcoin exchanges is rapidly maturing and taking on a more specialized and local role with specific features and languages. Depending on the jurisdiction, we will see things like Bitcoin ATMs, LocalBitcoins.com directories, and physical bitcoin storefronts.
Throughout all of this, the online bitcoin exchange will operate in the local language with tailored integration into that country’s financial institutions and payment methods.
In the Netherlands, the domestic Bitonic.nl exchange operates much the same as Coinbase with simple integration into a customer’s bank account. With just 10 major banks in the country, Dutch company Bitonic can link with all of them by just going through the iDEAL e-commerce payment network. Bitplaats exchange also operates in the Netherlands.
In Sweden, the country boasts at least four domestic exchanges that cater exclusively to the Swedish market for bitcoins, including btcx.se, Safello, Kapiton, and FYB-SE.
Recently in India, it came to light that a burgeoning entrepreneurial class was driving bitcoin adoption in that country with domestic exchanges like buysellbitco, Unocoin, INRBTC, BitQuick.in, and bitcoinex.
Hong Kong has probably seen one of the most rapid increases in bitcoin exchange activity. Outside of mainland China, Hong Kong operators enjoy access to a leading financial services center prompting many to speculate that it could quickly become a digital currency trading hub and pave the way into China. Both Bitfinex and ANXBTC are based in Hong Kong.
These are the exchanges that will be driving bitcoin forward in the developing world. Many of them are not really known outside of their local regions but they represent the trend unfolding in bitcoin trading volume where domestic retail exchanges cater to local needs and the global exchanges operate at the wholesale level.
The allure of the vast global remittance market has attracted entrepreneurs for years and the dream is slowly being realized as centralized and legacy infrastructure gives way to multiple bitcoin endpoints. We may not even notice the new network being built, but cross-border transactions in bitcoin operate on a 24-hour basis and they don’t require permission.
Soon, the domestic bitcoin exchanges in your country will start to seem as ubiquitous and pervasive as petrol stations or mobile phone stores. That will be a truly global network. The ultimate victory comes when received bitcoin is held and spent, not exchanged.
Monday, November 18, 2013
John Campbell of the Bank,
cashier of the Royal Bank of
Scotland, c. 1749. A banknote
can be seen on the table.Although the case in question (Crawfurd v. The Royal Bank) happened in the mid-1700s, I think it is highly relevant and bears nicely on the recent controversy surrounding CoinValidation. This post will also be of interest to anyone fascinated by the history and/or theory of money.
While this particular case involved paper banknotes (which arguably are irredeemably flawed) rather than a ‘hard currency’, it still illustrates nicely the rationale behind a decision which impacted a widely used currency at the time. Of primary consideration in this case was how its resolution would affect the usability of the currency (i.e. a facet from which currency largely derives its value).
As we’re probably all aware of by now, CoinValidation’s plan, if successfully implemented, would presumably lead to the blacklisting of some coins based on their past transfer history (e.g. having at some point been sent to/from deep web contraband marketplaces, having been paid as ransom to malware operators like those of CryptoLocker, having been stolen, having been allegedly ‘laundered’, having been associated with scams/ponzis, &c). In effect, this would destroy the fungibility of bitcoins. Some ‘clean’ coins would be easier to spend and transact with, while other ‘less clean’ or downright ‘tainted’ coins would be more difficult to use. Thus we would be left with a difficult-to-navigate and frustrating-to-use system whereby some coins are worth more than others (due to their varying spendability). And this largely defeats the purpose of a currency as a facile medium of exchange in the first place.
The case Hew Crawfurd brought against the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1749 had the potential for similar ramifications.
In 1748, Crawfurd sent two large-denomination banknotes, which he had made marks upon and recorded the serial numbers of, through the mail to an associate. Unfortunately the banknotes were not delivered. After enquiring as to their possible whereabouts with the banks, as well as posting newspaper advertisements, one of the notes eventually turned up rather mysteriously at the Royal Bank, although it wasn’t clear whose hands it had passed through to get there. Based on Crawfurd’s diligent recording and marking of the bills in question, however, there was no question that it was one of the two that were sent. Crawfurd was duly notified of the note’s reappearance.
While Crawfurd was eager to be reimbursed for his loss, his claim put the banks in an unenviable position. After all, they presumably had no knowledge that the banknote now in their possession was ill-begotten. Would it be fair to them to eat the loss? And more importantly, what sort of precedent might this set?
Kenneth Reid writes:
"The Banks’ concern is easily understood. If holders of banknotes were vulnerable to infirmities of title of which they knew nothing, then this would indeed be ‘a barr to the circulation’ of notes and hence a threat to the whole idea of paper money. And even if that position could be resisted—even if bona fide holders took an unblemished title—there was the further difficulty of assessing the holder’s state of knowledge. Crawfurd had marked the banknotes and advertised his loss. Must a holder be taken to know this and to realize its significance? ‘If’, the Banks reasoned, ‘the writing upon notes and advertising the numbers in the Publick Prints should be found sufficient to interpel people from receiving such notes in payment it would be a mean of putting an intire stop to the circulation of notes and of opening a door for frauds by malicious and designing persons’" (emphasis mine)
After hearing arguments from both sides of the dispute, judges ultimately decided in favor of the bank. The stated rationale for their decision largely rested on a distinction they made between money and real property, and how the terms of ownership should be established:
“The Judges, he wrote, were unanimous ‘that money is not subject to any vitium reale1; and that it cannot be vindicated from the bona fide possessor, however clear the proof [of] the theft may be’. Accordingly, ‘Mr Crawfurd had no claim to the note in question’. Thus was established the rule of bona fide acquisition of money in Scotland. The decision also relieved the Banks of the concern, raised once more during the litigation, that newspaper advertisement might ‘amount to a sufficient Interpellation to all the World’ as to deprive the recipient of good faith.”1 ‘an inherent taint or defect in a title to property’While the decision they penned rested on carefully crafted legalese, it is nonetheless accepted that other, more pragmatic, considerations undoubtedly influenced the judges’ decision. Reid writes:
“Policy issues, as might be expected, were highly prominent in Lord Strichen’s Report. Trade, it was argued for the Banks, rested on the free circulation of money, and free circulation rested in turn on the reliability of notes and coins. If Crawfurd was able to vindicate the banknote, no merchant could risk taking money in payment ‘without being informed of the whole History of it from the Time that it first issued out of the Bank or the Mint till it came to his Hand, which is so apparently absurd, that it seems hardly to merit a Consideration’. And as banknotes would thus be rendered ‘absolutely useless’, this would ‘in a great Measure deprive the Nation of the Benefit of the Banks, which could hardly subsist without the Circulation of their Notes’. It was in vain for Home to object that, just as people continue to buy goods despite the (slight) risk that they might be stolen and subject to vindication, so they would continue to accept money if the risks were the same. If money could be vindicated, counsel for the Bank of Scotland concluded, ‘no Man could be sure, that one Shilling in his pocket was his own, and both Banks might shut their doors’.”(emphasis mine)
Of course there were probably many other factors at play here. Although Crawfurd was of some means, it’s likely that the bank was able to afford the very best representation in this case. Moreover, in Reid’s research paper (linked below) he even points out that there was a fairly overt conflict of interest between the banks (the issuers of notes) and the judicial system at that time in Scotland. Reid also points out that there was some Roman jurisprudence (a source for many legal arguments in the case) that would seem to have roundly supported Crawfurd’s case rather than that of the bank.
Regardless of whether one ascribes impartiality to the judges in this case, or even whether or not one thinks the case was correctly decided based on previous jurisprudence, there’s little question that the emerging paper currency system would have been greatly imperiled had the case been decided in favor of Crawfurd.
Putting aside the obvious flaws inherent in paper banknotes, which were widely adopted in Scotland after their issuance first began in 1695, they did enable trade and commerce to occur on a previously unprecedented scale, and with less friction than seen with previous monetary systems (i.e. precious metals). In a society without telecommunications, Internet, and cryptocurrencies, the paper banknotes (although low-tech by modern standards) were nonetheless an innovation in the transfer of value within the country.
We’ll never know exactly what would have happened if the judges, by their decision, had abbreviated the fungibility of banknotes, or ‘the absolute currency of money’ as one Scottish legal scholar put it. But it seems likely that they would have thrown the monetary system into disarray, and interrupted a medium for commerce that many had come to rely upon for their wealth and prosperity. Perhaps this would even have been a major setback to the economic development of the country. Certainly this was one major concern that the judges had to take into consideration.
At the time of the decision, some arguments in favor of the bank notably argued that tracking ‘the whole History’ of a given banknote would be so cumbersome to those transacting as to render the whole currency system useless. Ironically, the electronic and highly traceable nature of bitcoin does somewhat (though nowhere near entirely) mitigate this argument. But perhaps the more relevant question for today’s world is whether it is wise to entrust the adjudication of a given monetary unit’s history to some arbitrary entity. The deciders of whether or not a given unit has a ‘clean’ or ‘tainted’ history are given enormous power. Even the Scots arguing this case back in the 1700s recognized the danger this presented, in that it could lead to “opening a door for frauds by malicious and designing persons”.
Now we find ourselves at a similar crossroads as the Scots did… but instead of an intranational paper currency, there is potentially a decentralized, global value transfer protocol at stake. We must ask ourselves whether altering the monetary framework in order to punish lawbreakers and wrongdoers is something worth jeopardizing the very ‘currency of money’ for.
Luckily, in making this choice, we are not wholly subjected to the caprices of some empaneled judges. Ultimately bitcoin is controlled by the people. Ultimately we can vote with our money, in line with our values.
And while actively determining and participating in what may well be the future of money, I sincerely hope we all look to the lessons of the past for guidance.
For further reading, here is my source for this post: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2260952