What is Bitcoin?
It is also known as digital cash, cryptocurrency, an international payment network, the internet of money – but whatever you call it, Bitcoin is a revolution that is changing the way everyone sees and uses money.
The beauty of Bitcoin is that it requires no central servers or third-party clearing houses to settle transactions – all payments are peer-to-peer (P2P) and are settled in about 10 minutes – unlike credit card payments, which can take weeks or months before they’re finally settled.
All Bitcoin transactions are recorded permanently on a distributed ledger called the “blockchain” – this ledger is shared between all full Bitcoin “miners” and “nodes” around the world, and is publicly-viewable. These miners and nodes verify transactions and keep the network secure. For the electricity they use to do this, miners are rewarded with new bitcoins with each 10-minute block (the reward is currently 12.5 BTC per block).
The Bitcoin protocol is also hard-limited to 21 million bitcoins, meaning that no more than that can ever be created. This means that no central bank, individual or government can come along and simply ‘print’ more bitcoins when it suits them. In this sense Bitcoin is a deflationary currency, and as such is likely to grow in value based on this property alone.
What are its characteristics?
Bitcoin has several important features that set it apart from government-backed currencies.
1. It's decentralized
The bitcoin network isn’t controlled by one central authority. Every machine that mines bitcoin and processes transactions makes up a part of the network, and the machines work together. That means that, in theory, one central authority can’t tinker with monetary policy and cause a meltdown – or simply decide to take people’s bitcoins away from them, as the Central European Bank decided to doin Cyprus in early 2013. And if some part of the network goes offline for some reason, the money keeps on flowing.
2. It's easy to set up
Conventional banks make you jump through hoops simply to open a bank account. Setting up merchant accounts for payment is another Kafkaesque task, beset by bureaucracy. However, you can set up a bitcoin address in seconds, no questions asked, and with no fees payable.
3. It's anonymous
Well, kind of. Users can hold multiple bitcoin addresses, and they aren’t linked to names, addresses, or other personally identifying information. However…
4. It's completely transparent
…bitcoin stores details of every single transaction that ever happened in the network in a huge version of a general ledger, called the blockchain. The blockchain tells all.
If you have a publicly used bitcoin address, anyone can tell how many bitcoins are stored at that address. They just don’t know that it’s yours.
There are measures that people can take to make their activities more opaque on the bitcoin network, though, such as not using the same bitcoin addresses consistently, and not transferring lots of bitcoin to a single address.
5. Transaction fees are miniscule
Your bank may charge you a £10 fee for international transfers. Bitcoin doesn’t.
6. It’s fast
You can send money anywhere and it will arrive minutes later, as soon as the bitcoin network processes the payment.
7. It’s non-repudiable
When your bitcoins are sent, there’s no getting them back, unless the recipient returns them to you. They’re gone forever.
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