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Business Impact

Leading Economist Predicts a Bitcoin Backlash

Economist Simon Johnson says governments will feel the urge to suppress the crypto-currency Bitcoin.

A distributed, digital currency could allow new forms of online and mobile commerce—and perhaps challenge established financial systems.

Governments and established financial institutions are likely to launch a campaign to quash the decentralized digital currency Bitcoin, according to a leading economist and academic. Simon Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, expects Bitcoin to face political pressure and aggressive lobbying from big banks because of its disruptive nature.

Simon Johnson
Money matters: Simon Johnson on stage at EmTech.

“There is going to be a big political backlash,” Johnson said on stage at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last Thursday. “And the question is whether the people behind those currencies are ready for that and have their own political strategy.”

The system of cryptographic software behind Bitcoin represents a significant technical advance, and the currency has inspired many cyber-libertarians (see “What Bitcoin Is and Why It Matters”). Mathematical and computer networking principles are used to underpin a system through which financial transactions can be made digitally, without the need for any central authority or financial institution.

The code that supports and regulates the Bitcoin network is built into the software needed to use the currency. It works in a distributed network across the Internet to confirm transactions and prevent counterfeiting. Adding to the mystique, the technical expert or experts who developed the Bitcoin protocol are still unknown.

After several years as a nerdy curiosity, the currency has recently gained momentum as a legitimate means of payment. Many Bitcoin-based businesses are springing up, some backed by major Silicon Valley venture capitalists (see “Bitcoin Hits the Big Time, to the Regret of Some Early Boosters”).

However, Johnson says that Bitcoin’s success will draw increased attention from governments and regulators, who are used to having tight control over currencies. He believes they will be egged on by established financial institutions, which will likely seek to quash the currency. Bitcoin enables very rapid, cheap transfers and payments that could compete with existing fee-based ways of moving money around. “Any bankers watching this should be very afraid,” said Johnson.

Bitcoin opponents could get ammunition for their campaign from the recent case of Silk Road, an online marketplace where bitcoins were traded for illicit drugs. The FBI arrested a man on suspicion of running the site and seized the servers that ran Silk Road. The site was hidden from the open Internet using the anonymous networking technology Tor.

Johnson suggested that this kind of controversial association could certainly put pressure on Bitcoin. “People care a lot about how monies are used,” he said. “They care about the various behaviors associated with monies.”

Indeed, it appears that Bitcoin is coming under increased scrutiny from lawmakers and politicians. Stephen Pair, cofounder and CTO of the Bitcoin payments company Bitpay, says his company has been contacted by state and national officials who have subpoenaed information about its activities.

Pair rejects any suggestion that the currency has any special association with illegal activities. “Just because you use Bitcoin and Tor doesn’t mean you can get away with breaking the law,” he says. “I would not advise people to see Bitcoin as a means of subverting the legal system.”

Johnson, who served as chief economist for the International Monetary Fund in 2007 and 2008, said he thinks supporters of the “crypto-currency” could head off opponents by persuading politicians and legislators that it represents an opportunity for international innovation. “They shouldn’t sit back and wait for other people to define them in terms of Silk Road or anything else,” he said in an interview after the conference. “They should be proactive and explain why this would be a great industry for the U.S. to develop, and why they should have appropriate regulation around that.”

He also said that some governments outside the U.S. may feel threatened by Bitcoin because it allows citizens and companies to sidestep restrictions on the movement of funds across their borders.

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