Next Monday, on November 18th, 2013 the Congress of the United States will have hearings on Bitcoin. How it works, what it means and what government should or can do about it.
Here is a gist of what a lawmaker should understand about Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is a protocol without central managing organisation. Anyone can issue currency and validate transactions from any place in the world. Censoring transactions will be as effective as stopping Bittorrent file sharing. Technologically, Bitcoin is impossible to control or shut down (in practice and to high degree in theory too).
Bitcoin tracks every transaction in a public ledger. If you know identities of certain addresses, then a transaction between them is publicly visible and acts as an immediate proof of activity between these identities. However, identities are not recorded in the ledger and anyone can use as many addresses as they like. Many wallet applications automatically create new addresses for every transaction.
Bitcoins can be very effectively split in small pieces and mixed between large number of users thus making any statistical analysis almost useless. So far there are no easy and cheap practical ways to do that, so not many people bother. But that’s entirely possible nonetheless. Those who need to protect their privacy will do so easily as soon as some serious attacks on privacy emerge. It’s similar to how Bittorrent magnet links appeared after attempts to shut down Bittorrent trackers. Now nobody needs a tracker at all to discover available files and access them. Bitcoin mixing will become built-in feature in many free wallet applications if it will become much needed.
Bitcoin protocol rules are enforced by the entire network of millions of computers. Changing the rules by one computer will not allow it to participate in the rest of the network. If transaction is not considered valid by everyone, it will be accepted by no one.
Black market will become even bigger with Bitcoin. Everything that law enforcement cannot reach will be even safer to trade and many more activities will become possible with Bitcoin that were not possible before.
Regulations may realistically only affect law-abiding consumers and producers. And the only thing they can do is to increase friction and costs for both of them. Some legit businesses under regulations will become impossible, while others will go to the black market or foreign jurisdictions.
Forbidding Bitcoin completely is just a degree of regulation. It will have no effect on black market that will only grow, but it will shift innovative businesses to other jurisdictions, where there is more freedom. Today, Argentinian government imposes strict capital controls and inflates their currency and forces people to get dollars and bitcoins on black market. Since Bitcoins are much easier to sell and use than dollars, they are being deployed much quicker. If that continues, bitcoins and dollars will completely replace pesos in the entire economy and the government will go bankrupt.
Policymakers are interested in preserving their image of people who protect citizens and need to collect taxes to keep the government running. If one needs to keep innovation and growing wealth within a country and tax it, then Bitcoin transactions should be left as free as possible. Regulators should provide clear and simple guidelines on how to report all taxable revenues and provide assurances that businesses are free to transact as efficiently as they can, provided they pay their taxes. Anything more than that will only increase the size of black market or shift wealth to other places (thus reducing tax revenues for the government).
Countries that embrace Bitcoin will attract enormous amount of capital in a very short period of time. Countries failing to do so will quickly lose that exact amount of capital.