What is bitcoin? In simplest terms, bitcoin is digital currency. It can be exchanged for goods and services over information networks. Bitcoin has a number of interesting features that make it different from the digital dollars you use when shopping online, however. Most notably, bitcoin is decentralized and pseudo-anonymous.
Bitcoin has no issuing authority. No country or bank controls it. Being decentralized means that people simply exchange bitcoin between themselves. Therefore, transactions are cheaper and quicker than with traditional digital currencies that must pay a share to money-exchanging middlemen. Whereas a bank keeps its ledgers secret, the bitcoin ledger, known as the blockchain, is publicly available. Transactions are kept safe using cryptography. Users have a public bitcoin address, which is like a username, and a private key, which is like a secret password. When someone conducts business using their username and password, a network of computers comprised of “miners” validate the transaction, post it to the blockchain, and are paid a tiny transaction fee for their efforts.
Both the public bitcoin address (username) and the private key (password) are just numbers. Since they have no issuing authority that would otherwise conduct background checks, users can remain pseudo-anonymous. Just as with everything, however, this feature can be abused. Bitcoin can be used to conduct the illicit transaction of black market goods. On the other hand, pseudo-anonymity is an important feature for humanists serious about maintaining their legal right to privacy.
China has recently outlawed ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings of bitcoin-like crypto-currencies) with its central bank stating that ICOs have “seriously disrupted the economic and financial order.” This is a testament to the power of bitcoin. As it nears a historic high of $5000/btc, it has become clear that bitcoin is a financial force to be reckoned with!
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