Is a Blockchain a Blockchain if it Isn’t?

Anyone who has heard of Bitcoin knows that it is built on a mechanism called The Blockchain. Most of us who follow the topic are also aware that Bitcoin and the blockchain were unveiled—together—in a whitepaper by a mysterious developer, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

That was eight years ago. Bitcoin is still the granddaddy of all blockchain-based networks, and most of the others deal with alternate payment coins of one type or another. Since Bitcoin is king, the others are collectively referred to as ‘Altcoins’.

But the blockchain can power so much more than coins and payments. And so—as you might expect—investors are paying lots of attention to blockchain startups or blockchain integration into existing services. Not just for payments, but for everything under the sun.

Think of Bitcoin as a product and the blockchain as a clever network architecture that enables Bitcoin and a great many future products and institutions to do more things—or to do these things better, cheaper, more robust and more blockchain-01secure than products and institutions built upon legacy architectures.

When blockchain developers talk about permissionless, peer-to-peer ledgers, or decentralized trust, or mining and “the halving event”, eyes glaze over. That’s not surprising. These things refer to advantages and minutiae in abstract ways, using a lexicon of the art. But—for many—they don’t sum up the benefits or provide a simple listing of products that can be improved, and how they will be better.

I am often asked “What can the Blockchain be used for—other than digital currency?” It may surprise some readers to learn that the blockchain is already redefining the way we do banking and accounting, voting, land deeds and property registration, health care proxies, genetic research, copyright & patents, ticket sales, and many proof-of-work platforms. All of these things existed in the past, but they are about to serve society better because of the blockchain. And this impromptu list barely scratches the surface.

I address the question of non-coin blockchain applications in other articles. But today, I will focus on a subtle but important tangent. I call it “A blockchain in name only”

Question: Can a blockchain be a blockchain if it is controlled by the issuing authority? That is, can we admire the purpose and utility, if it was released in a fashion that is not open-source, fully distributed—and permissionless to all users and data originators?

A Wild Duck Answer (Unmask Charlatans):
Many of the blockchains gaining attention from users and investors are “blockchains” in name only. So, what makes a blockchain a blockchain?

Everyone knows that it entails distributed storage of a transaction ledger. But this fact alone could be handled by a geographically redundant, cloud storage service. The really beneficial magic relies on other traits. Each one applies to Bitcoin, which is the original blockchain implementation:

blockchain_logo▪Open-source
▪Fully distributed among all users.
▪ Any user can also be a node to the ledger
▪Permissionless to all users and data originators
▪Access from anywhere data is generated or analyzed

A blockchain designed and used within Santander Bank, the US Post Office, or even MasterCard might be a nifty tool to increase internal redundancy or immunity from hackers. These potential benefits over the legacy mechanism are barely worth mentioning. But if a blockchain pretender lacks the golden facets listed above, then it lacks the critical and noteworthy benefits that make it a hot topic at the dinner table and in the boardroom of VCs that understand what they are investing in.

Some venture financiers realize this, of course. But, I wonder how many Wall Street pundits stay laser-focused on what makes a blockchain special, and know how to ascertain which ventures have a leg up in their implementations.

Perhaps more interesting and insipid is that even for users and investors who are versed in this radical and significant new methodology—and even for me—there is a subtle bias to assume a need for some overseer; a nexus; a trusted party. permissioned-vs-permissionlessAfter all, doesn’t there have to be someone who authenticates a transaction, guarantees redemption, or at least someone who enforces a level playing field?

That bias comes from our tendency to revert to a comfort zone. We are comfortable with certain trusted institutions and we feel assured when they validate or guarantee a process that involves value or financial risk, especially when dealing with strangers. A reputable intermediary is one solution to the problem of trust. It’s natural to look for one.

So, back to the question. True or False?…

In a complex value exchange with strangers and at a distance, there must be someone or some institution who authenticates a transaction, guarantees redemption, or at least enforces the rules of engagement (a contract arbiter).

Absolutely False!

No one sits at the middle of a blockchain transaction, nor does any institution guarantee the value exchange. Instead, trust is conveyed by math and by the number of eyeballs. Each transaction is personal and validation is crowd-sourced. More importantly, with a dispersed, permissionless and popular blockchain, transactions are more provably accurate, more robust, and more immune from hacking or government interference.

What about the protections that are commonly associated with a bank-brokered transaction? (For example: right of rescission, right to return a product and get a refund, a shipping guaranty, etc). These can be built into a blockchain transaction. That’s what the Cryptocurrency Standards Association is working on right now. Their standards and practices are completely voluntary. Any missing protection that might be expected by one party or the other is easily revealed during the exchange set up.

For complex or high value transactions, some of the added protections involve a trusted authority. blockchain-02But not the transaction itself. (Ah-hah!). These outside authorities only become involved (and only tax the system), when there is a dispute.

Sure! The architecture must be continuously tested and verified—and Yes: Mechanisms facilitating updates and scalability need organizational protocol—perhaps even a hierarchy. Bitcoin is a great example of this. With ongoing growing pains, we are still figuring out how to manage disputes among the small percentage of users who seek to guide network evolution.

But, without a network that is fully distributed among its users as well as permissionless, open-source and readily accessible, a blockchain becomes a blockchain in name only. It bestows few benefits to its creator, none to its users—certainly none of the dramatic perks that have generated media buzz from the day Satoshi hit the headlines.

Related:

Ellery Davies is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association,
host & MC for The Bitcoin Event and editor at A Wild Duck.

Can Governments Ban Bitcoin?

Recently, I became Most Viewed Writer on Bitcoin and cryptocurrency at Quora.com. I don’t typically mirror these posts at A Wild Duck. After all, the sites are linked and my articles at both sites Quora_Most_Viewed_splashrank highly in an organic search. But a question posed today is highly relevant to this Blog. Here, then, is my reply to the question
“How can governments ban Bitcoin?”


Governments can enact legislation that applies to any behavior or activity. That’s what governments do—at least the legislative arm of a government. Such edicts distinguish activities that are legal from those that are banned or regulated.

You asked: “How can governments ban Bitcoin?” But you didn’t really mean to ask in this way. After all, legislators ban whatever they wish by meeting in a congress or committee and promoting a bill into law. In the case of a monarchy or dictatorship, the leader simply issues an edict.

So perhaps, the real question is “Can a government ban on Bitcoin be effective?”

Some people will follow the law, no matter how nonsensical, irrelevant, or contrary to the human condition. These are good people who have respect for authority and a drive toward obedience. Others will follow laws, because they fear the cost of breaking the rules and getting caught. I suppose that these are good people too. But, overall, for a law to be effective, it must address a genuine public need (something that cries out for regulation), it must not contradict human nature, and it must address an activity that is reasonably open to observation, audit or measurement.

Banning Bitcoin fails all three test of a rational and enforceable law.

Most governments, including China and Italy, realize that a government ban on the possession of bits and bytes can be no more effective than banning feral cats from mating in the wild or legislating that basements shall remain dry by banning ground  water from seeking its level.

So, the answer to the implied question is: A ban on Bitcoin could never be effective.

For this reason, astute governments avoid the folly of enacting legislation to ban Bitcoin. Instead, if they perceive a threat to domestic policy, tax compliance, monetary supply controls or special interests, they discourage trading by discrediting Bitcoin or raising concerns over safety, security, and criminal activity. In effect, a little education, misinformation or FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) can sometimes achieve what legislation cannot.

Reasons to Ban Bitcoin … a perceived threat to either:

  • domestic policy
  • tax compliance
  • monetary supply controls
  • special interests

Methods to Discourage Trading (rather than a ban)

  • Discredit Bitcoin (It’s not real money)
  • Raise concerns over safety & security
  • Tie its use to criminal activity

Avoiding both a ban—and even official discouragement

There is good news on the horizon. In a few countries—including the USA—central bankers, monetary czars and individual legislators are beginning to view Bitcoin as an opportunity rather than a threat. Prescient legislators are coming to the conclusion that a distributed, decentralized trading platform, like Bitcoin, does not threaten domestic policy and tax compliance—even if citizens begin to treat it as cash rather than a payment instrument. While a cash-like transition might ultimately undermine the federal reserve monetary regime and some special interests, this is not necessarily a bad thing—not even for the affected “interests”.

If Bitcoin graduates from a debit/transmission vehicle (backed by cash) to the cash itself, citizens will develop more trust and respect for their governments. Why? Because their governments will no longer be able to water down citizen wealth by running the printing press, nor borrow against unborn generations. Instead, they will need to collect every dollar that they spend or convince bond holders that they can repay their debts. They will need to balance their checkbooks, spend more transparently and wear their books on their sleeves. All good things.

Naturally, this type of change frightens entrenched lawmakers. The idea of separating a government from its monetary policy seems—well—radical! But this only because we have not previously encountered a technology that placed government accountability and transparency on par with the private sector requirement to keep records and balance the books.                                       [continue below image]…

What backs your currency? Is it immune from hyperinflation?

What backs your currency? Is it immune from hyperinflation?

Seven sovereign countries use the US Dollar as their main currency. Why? Because the government of these countries were addicted to spending which leads to out-of-control inflation. They could not convince citizens that they could wean themselves of the urge to print bank notes with ever increasing zeros. And so, by switching to the world’s reserve currency, they demonstrate a willingness to settle debts with an instrument that cannot be inflated by edict, graft or sloppy bookkeeping.

But here’s the problem: Although the US dollar is more stable than the Zimbabwe dollar, this is a contest in relative trust and beating the clock. The US has a staggering debt that is sustained only by our creditors’ willingness to bear the float. Like Zimbabwe, Argentina, Greece and Germany between the wars, our lawmakers raise the debt ceiling with a lot of bluster, but nary a thought.

Is there a way to instill confidence in a way that is both trustworthy and durable? Yes! —And it is increasingly likely that Bitcoin is the way to the trust and confidence that is so sorely needed.

Ellery Davies is a frequent contributor to Quora. He is also co-chair of Cryptocurrency Standards Association and editor at A Wild Duck.

China creates a Bitcoin buy opportunity

When governments seek to inhibit, retard or ban a grassroots movement, it almost always has the opposite effect. Official acts of suppression tend to fuel publicity and growth by shining a light on the activity or venue that some wish to suppress.

The US government apparently knows this. Perhaps that is why a Justice Department official said on November 18 that Bitcoins can be a “legal means of exchange” at a U.S. Senate committee hearing.

  • Mythili Raman, acting assistant attorney general at the department’s criminal division, told the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs “We all recognize that virtual currencies, in and of themselves, are not illegal”.
  • Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Ben Bernanke, told the Senate committee that the U.S. central bank has no plans to regulate the currency. He wrote to lawmakers: “Although the Federal Reserve generally monitors developments in virtual currencies and other payments system innovations, it does not necessarily have authority to directly supervise or regulate these innovations or the entities that provide them to the market”.

Of course, as with any monetary authority, the US government needs to preserve public faith in the dollar, and also avoid an exodus to digital currencies, even if used only for online transactions. But rather than attempting to ban individuals from investing in Bitcoin or using it as a currency, the US subtly discredits Bitcoin by placing fear and doubt in the minds of would be traders. For example, in this interview, former fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, explains with remarkable clarity why he believes it is foolish to accept Bitcoin as a currency.

Dr. Greenspan is smarter than me and I am certain that he believes what he says. But I respectfully disagree that trust comes only from the Aristotle doctrine of intrinsic value. Even without the backing of a trusted government or bank, investment value can arise from a combination of provable scarcity and widespread recognition.

Short term investment?  —  or
Long term exchange medium?

I prefer to study Bitcoin as an emerging global currency rather than as an investment vehicle. But even as an investment, its potential is inextricably linked to the likelihood that it will catch on as a currency—at least in some sectors or in some countries. So, let’s look at this possibility…

The long term viability of Bitcoin as a currency depends upon sustained trust by a large number of vendors and consumers. That is, buyers and sellers must feel that there will be broad or growing audience to accept the coins that they accrue, and that the value of their savings—or even of daily receipts—will not be eroded by inflation or a sudden lack of faith. (I am not too concerned with wild swings in exchange value during early adoption. These tend to be overlooked by “bleeding edge” adopters or at least the significant fraction of them that have a strong stomach).

Why is Bitcoin falling?

Bitcoin_pullbackThe short answer: it’s not falling for long. It is adjusting in response to politics, but it almost certainly will return to its historical trend.

The upward path of Bitcoin is already the stuff of legend. The exchange rate with the US dollar rose from nothing to $12 in the first 2 years of trading. This year, it peaked at $1240 on Thanksgiving Day in late November, but then pulled back as low as $650 over the next week. The fall was precipitated by a warning from the Chinese government to its citizens. Their announcement did not ban owning or trading Bitcoins, but it warned citizens that it was a very risky investment and also that it must not be used as currency in any transactions.

After pausing at around $700 for a day, it returned to a range of $850~1050 for most of December. But there was another sudden drop last night, on December 17. It pulled all the way into the high fours before settling between $550 and $600. (This posting was written on Dec 18).

But what happened last night? What caused the second nosedive in this graph?

China_effect_on_Bitcoin

Answer: China is at it again. It is using direct engagement rather than subtle persuasion in an attempt to block gradual adoption of a decentralized, uncontrollable phenomenon. Last night, China’s biggest Bitcoin exchange was barred from accepting new Yuan deposits. But it was not shut down. Citizens can continue to sell and trade Bitcoins that are already in their account and the exchange can still accept cash from outside the country.

Some would say that the downward pressure is a natural response to law and public policy. Wild Ducks augment this argument by pointing out that the fall is a temporary and technical effect. More to the point—we see it as a buying opportunity.

Of course, I acknowledge the short term risk and I continue to downplay the role of Bitcoin as an investment. But I can’t shake the notion that early adoption leads to appreciation over the course of a maturing commodity. I also can’t shake extreme excitement over a property of Bitcoin that places it head-and-shoulders above government and bank-backed currencies: The supply is capped. It simply cannot be printed, inflated, or used as a political tool. It also resists efforts of governments to attack personal wealth as the basis for mandatory redistribution, at least without full and wholehearted consent of the governed.

Given the choice of using it as currency later or owning it earlier, why not do both?

Further reading:

Ellery Davies is acting technology editor for AWildDuck. He dabbles in law, economics, and public policy and has been fascinated with Bitcoin for years.