Bitcoin roundup: Blockchain ledger catching on as HM Treasury mulls regulation
Bitcoin advocates will be hoping 2015, in some respects at least, is not a repeat of 2014.
Over the past 12 months holders of the crypto-currency have seen the value of the bitcoin in their digital wallet fall by 66 per cent from the $950 (£606) high reached in January 2014, to $312 at the time of writing, threatening to break below $300.
Bitcoin reached an all-time high of $1,150 in late November 2013.
In other ways the past year may have marked the end of the first episode in bitcoin's journey to mass acceptance, as the venture capital funding attracted to the ecosystem accelerated and the potential non-currency uses to which the blockchain public ledger technology at the heart of the bitcoin protocol can be put - sometimes referred to as Bitcoin 2.0 - started to come into view (see more on this below).
US Marshals Service auctions off bitcoins
Over the past few weeks we have also seen both a reminder of bitcoin's past and a glimpse of its possible future.
The US Marshals Service (USMS) auctioned off 50,000 bitcoins from the hoard it confiscated off Ross Ulbricht, the alleged owner and operator of the dark web marketplace for drugs and other illegal goods and services known as the Silk Road.
A syndicate led by the Bitcoin Investment Trust and the trading division of SecondMarket, the US-based private share dealing exchange, won 48,000 bitcoins, and Tim Draper, founder of venture capitalist firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, the remaining 2,000.
The total value of the auctioned bitcoins is $15.6 million at today's prices. The USMS is still holding 94,341 bitcoins seized from Ulbricht's Silk Road and plans to auction them 'in coming months'.
And in a case of the bitcoin past repeating itself, a dark web marketplace that sprang up to replace the original Silk Road, dubbed Silk Road 2.0, was closed down following an FBI and Europol joint operation.
The raid that led to the arrest of alleged operator Blake Bethnall took place on 6 November 2014, exactly one year after the closure of the original Silk Road.
HM Treasury's digital currency consultation to report in new year
Looking to the future, HM Treasury's public consultation on digital currencies ended on 3 December and the UK government's response will be made early in 2015.
The consultation sought 'views and evidence on the benefits and risks of digital currencies', and is part of the wider Treasury programme looking at how to make it easier for consumers to access and use financial services.
New crypto-currency LEOcoin was among the organisations and individuals that lodged some 70 submissions to the consultation. Co-founder Dan Andersson said he was 'delighted' the government was taking crypto-currencies 'seriously enough to launch what is effectively a mini consultation', but warned against hampering innovation.
'All we are asking,' continued Andersson, 'is for the UK government to start to understand the idiosyncrasies of crypto-currencies and to recognise the benefits they bring, particularly to entrepreneurs and SMEs, which are the lifeblood of the UK economy, rather than spending too much time focusing on potentially restrictive and ultimately redundant regulations.'
Among LeoCoin's suggestions submitted to the consultation is a rule to require exchanges to hold 'a good reserve of digital currency and to publicly publish their balance sheets'.
Chancellor George Osborne announced the programme in August 2014 to look at, among other things, whether the government should take action to promote innovation in the digital currencies area and to explore the risks.
The government's position is in contrast with a hostile attitude from UK banks towards bitcoin, which some commentators interpret as the financial industry waiting for the government to make its move first.
Microsoft and Time accept bitcoin
The bitcoin year closes with more good news on the adoption front, as Microsoft and US media group Time separately announced that they would allow purchases for some of their products with bitcoin.
In the case of Microsoft, purchases will be limited to digital content such as apps and games on Windows Phone and Xbox platforms.
Eric Lockard, corporate vice president of Universal Store at Microsoft commented in a blog post: 'The use of digital currencies such as bitcoin, while not yet mainstream, is growing beyond the early enthusiasts. We expect this growth to continue and allowing people to use bitcoin to purchase our products and services now allows us to be at the front edge of that trend.'
Time for its part now accepts bitcoin payment for subscriptions to its Fortune and Health magazines, and has used technology from US-based bitcoin services company Coinbase to implement the move.
Blockchain.com wallet blues
Lately too, there's been good and bad news for bitcoin's blockchain public ledger.
First the bad. A little local difficulty arose with a security failure at blockchain.com, one of the largest distributors of digital wallets for holding bitcoins.
The issue arose, according to the company, after a software update to its web wallet product went wrong, leading to private keys being generated with low 'entropy' - meaning the keys were vulnerable to attack by hackers.
The wallets were pulled from Bitcoin.org, the information and community website that is the de facto home of the system's core developers, as the news spread.
The problem, which occurred on 8 December, affected 'less than 0.0002 per cent of our user base and was limited to a few hundred addresses' stated blockchain.com.
A non-malicious 'whitehat' hacker who uses the name 'johoe' on the Bitcoin Forum (bitcointalk.org) let it be known that when he/she noticed the problem and posted the addresses of 1,018 compromised wallets.
Johoe 'took the liberty of saving some funds before they got swiped by others', he said in a post. The hacker has now returned the 225 coins concerned.
The good news for the blockchain came in the form of a successful $21 million funding round for Blockstream announced on 17 November 2014 - a bitcoin startup that aims to fulfil the 'promise of blockchain technology'.
The round attracted interest from Silicon Valley royalty, with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Jerry Yang, the co-founder of Yahoo, and Eric Schmidt, Google co-founder and chairman, all participating.
Blockstream is focused on 'Bitcoin 2.0' where the ledger technology is used for all digital assets. In particular, by using a 'sidechain' approach Blockstream hopes to attack the problem of the lack of innovation in the bitcoin protocol because of fear of breaking something, by branching new features on a sidechain.
If anything goes wrong only the bitcoins in the sidechain would be affected, with the rest of the system remaining undisturbed.
Speaking to CoinDesk, chief executive Austin Hill said of his new investors: 'They saw the same potential we did... that it was going to be an entire revolution in computing, distributed trust, [and] security, and they bought into it and gave us their trust.'
Share a ride, trade products and sign documents... all on the blockchain
Meanwhile, developers have already been working on using the blockchain for non-currency transactions.
Joel Monegro of US venture capital firm Union Square Ventures wrote in his blog about what he calls the Blockchain Application Stack and pointed to two existing examples: OpenBazaar, a protocol that facilitates peer-to-peer trading and La'Zooz which has been created for real-time ride sharing.
The ideas behind both could potentially be hugely disruptive to current-day disruptors such as the ride-sharing apps Uber, Lyft and Hailo and online auctioneer eBay.
La'Zooz has an Android smartphone app of the same name that you can download for 'movement mining' - incentivising early adopters to log all movements faster than 20km.
Miners are rewarded with Zooz tokens. 'Once the critical mass of movement is reached in a certain geographical region, many drivers and riders are out there ready to share rides, and ride-sharing and other smart transportation services will become enabled and viable.'
Another interesting initiative, which Monegro doesn't mention but is now up and running, is Blocksign (blocksign.com). It leverages the blockchain to sign, verify and permanently record legally binding documents.
Co-creator of Blocksign Nicholas Thorne was an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs before starting the company Basno in 2011 that owns Blocksign.
'Signing documents and contracts can often be a confusing or tedious process. Blocksign provides an incredible way to permanently preserve verifiable records of what you've signed.'
Netagio cuts loose from its gold roots
Netagio, the UK-based bitcoin exchange we reported on in July and the first exchange to allow trading between gold and bitcoin, has now dropped the gold element.
Netagio was set up by GoldMoney Group, a gold custody company. Netagio chief executive Simon Hamblin explained the gold exit as a response to low customer demand and much larger interest in the euro and dollar markets: 'We're receiving this demand from customers and we really want to reposition the business... we're going to be removing gold from our offering.'
Gold is shiny bitcoin, says Citi's Buiter
Speaking of gold, in a backhanded complement for bitcoin, Willem Buiter, Citigroup's global senior economist, tore into the shiny asset as the last thing a central banker should be holding in the vaults, when remarking on a proposal in Switzerland that would require the central bank to double its gold reserves holding.
Given that gold is costly to produce and with no intrinsic value, Buiter argues the only other asset with similar properties is bitcoin.
He notes: 'The main differences between them [gold, bitcoin and fiat currencies] are that gold, like bitcoin, is very costly to produce, while the production of additional paper money has an extremely low marginal cost.'
He went on, with inflation risks in mind: 'Even though I view gold as pure bubble, that bubble may well be good for another 6,000 years.'
Of course the bitcoin industry will probably disagree with the bubble description of gold and its inference that bitcoin too is a bubble, but can be forgiven for super-optimistically hoping to emulate gold's 6,000-year past and continuing present as a store of value.
Bitcoin's good Black Friday
Not wanting to be left out on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales action, Bitnet, the merchant services outfit, said that business conducted using the currency took in $296 million globally, making it the ninth-biggest payment network.
'Like all other payment networks, bitcoin saw a surge in volume over Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with higher than usual payment totals over the two days,' said Akif Khan, vice president of solutions strategy at Bitnet.
'The Bitcoin network handled $296 million in two days - that's impressive when taking into account the currency is only five years old and is still growing with respect to merchant and consumer adoption.'