The Bitcoin Foundation, the leading association for the digital currency of the same name lost one of their highest profile members last week when Andreas Antonopolous resigned over what he described as “a complete lack of transparency.” Antonopolous is a prolific speaker and author on the subject of bitcoin and serves as the Chief Security Officer for Blockchain, one of the largest companies in the bitcoin space. An accusation of opacity in governance is ironic (though not unwarranted) when levied against the Bitcoin Foundation, an organization chartered to protect the world’s most transparent protocol and currency.
Supporters of the digital currency Bitcoin cite its transaction speed, international fungibility, and potential for anonymity as some of the best improvements over the current financial system. These improvements all miss a much greater innovation that lies at the heart of the bitcoin revolution. Bitcoin’s decentralized public ledger and its open-source design remove the need for consumers to trust third parties such as central banks, consumer banks, and payment processors.
Bitcoin’s pseudonymous founder, Satoshi Nakomoto, described Bitcoin as “an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.” This solves a problem that is rarely on the minds of consumers or even technologists, since the problem dates to the origin of money itself. As commerce evolved from being based on barter to minted coins to paper, it gained greater efficiency but developed a problem whereby consumers had to trust third parties for a host of services to include money creation, solvency, and accounting.
For example, when the United States was on a gold standard, users of U.S. currency trusted that the central bank had adequate reserves to redeem all treasury notes in circulation. Today, users of Federal Reserve Notes trust that the central bank won’t devalue their currency through inflation. On a daily basis, consumers also trust banks to remain solvent, merchants and payment processors to keep their databases secure from attack, and credit card companies to protect them in the event of fraud.
This consumer trust has often been misplaced. Banks that established some of the greatest levels of trust among consumers failed famously in the 2008 financial crisis. Central banks the world over have diluted their currencies or, as seen most recently in Cyprus, seized depositor assets without warning. Bad actors, such as Jordan Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont, have used the ways in which consumers are conditioned to trust financial institutions to perpetrate lucrative scams. The livelihood of a confidence man rests upon the ability to instill confidence in a disreputable actor.
Here is where the value of Bitcoin comes in. It addresses the need to trust central banks in two ways. First, Bitcoin divulges its exact level of inflation over the next 115 years so that users and holders of Bitcoin do not have to trust policymakers to always act in consumers’ best interests all of the time. Second, Bitcoin allows consumers unfettered access to their capital. A Cyprus-style deposit seizure is impossible in a Bitcoin world where consumers control their bitcoin wallets.
Bitcoin also has potential to solve the need to trust financial institutions to remain solvent. Because Bitcoin’s record of transactions is public, an institution can perform a proof-of-assets audit in open view of the public. Since MtGox famously collapsed in early 2014 several bitcoin exchanges have done just that, conducting fully visible audits. In the future Bitcoin has the potential to enable 24/7 monitoring of the assets of an institution.
Bitcoin also promises a more secure financial transaction than can be offered by todays clearinghouses and credit cards. The Bitcoin protocol operates on a distributed network of (currently) over 8,000 independently operated nodes. The nature of this network is such that it would be so difficult to attack that hackers will avoid doing so altogether in the absence of a critical vulnerability. The encryption behind the network, SHA-256, would take 650 million billion (6.5x1017) years for the world’s fastest supercomputer to break.
Unlike the bitcoin protocol, the Bitcoin Foundation is not designed in a way that removes the need for trust. Governed by humans with decisions made in private, it is decidedly not “open-source.” It is also increasingly unrecognizable to those members who believe that a more transparent world benefits consumers and merchants alike.
Colangelo is the executive director of Consumers’ Research. Consumers’ Research was founded in 1929 as a product testing and consumer advocacy organization and publishes a bi-monthly magazine on consumer topics.