Bitcoin. Oh, man, where to begin. Its Hype-O-Meter got cranked to 11 this week, and breathless histrionics are everywhere. Death and Taxes called this new currency “a seismic event“; Adam Cohen says it’s nothing but a giant scam; Jason Calacanis calls it “the most dangerous project we’ve ever seen“; and they’re all completely wrong. It’s interesting, and innovative, and down the line it might even be important … but in many crucial ways, Bitcoin is nothing new.
Matthew Ingram at GigaOM wrote a good Bitcoin 101 piece, but a summary of that summary, for those too lazy to click: it’s an anonymous online currency whose transactions and monetary supply are verified by digital cryptography and maintained by an open-source peer-to-peer network. Computers on the Bitcoin network can also “mine” new bitcoins, which are generated at a fixed rate. And, crucially, no more than 21 million will ever exist. (~7 million are currently extant.)
“So what?” you may ask, and not without reason—but Bitcoins are in fact worth something. Right now you can sell them for ~$7 a pop at any of several Bitcoin exchanges. The EFF accepts Bitcoin donations. Creating a secure distributed currency infrastructure is no mean feat; creating one that people actually use is more impressive still. I don’t want to understate that accomplishment. But, people, we have been here before, many times.
In 1932, the town of Wörgl, Austria, introduced a new currency that was so successful that it is still referred to as the “Miracle of Wörgl“, although the Austrian government soon shut it down for violating the government’s monopoly on printing money. Communities have been experimenting with local/community currencies ever since. (Not to be confused with “company scrip”, the Internet equivalent of which is Flooz, or Facebook Credits.) Bitcoin is little more than a reasonably well-designed local currency liberated from the shackles of geography.
There is one key difference between Bitcoin and Wörgl; no government can shut down Bitcoin’s printing presses. (Which aren’t necessarily figurative.) And that’s exactly why it’s been so successful so far—enough anarchists and libertarians, who have long hated fiat currencies and longed for the return of the gold standard, have flocked to it that it actually has value. But they’re a tiny minority, extremely unlikely to grow into a significant movement, and even if they do, it won’t much matter. Currencies, be they fiat, gold, or fixed-supply, are a collective fiction: they only have value if a critical mass of people believe they do. If the US and EU want to kill Bitcoin, they need only make it illegal, and that critical mass will vanish.
But why would any American or European business adopt Bitcoin in the first place? It’s an elegant and disruptive solution desperately looking for a problem. There’s nothing wrong with the dollar, euro, or yuan. As Victor Grishchenko cogently points out in his analysis, “Any competing e-money system needs to offer at least the same level of security, coverage, liquidity and privacy, which is hardly the case with Bitcoin at this moment.” In the developed world, Bitcoin is a non-starter. At best it might eke out an existence as a distributed local currency for hardcore libertarians.
…but the developing world is another matter. Consider Zimbabwe, recently plagued by hyperinflation so rampant that when I was last there prices doubled every few weeks and gasoline could only be purchased on the black market with hard currency. They’ve since given up and simply adopted foreign currency wholesale. Meanwhile, mobile electronic payments are taking off in a big way all over sub-Saharan Africa. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Zimbabwe in ten years’ time—or a whole group of developing nations with a history of crippling inflation—adopting a new currency that is independent, incorruptible, and anti-inflationary by design. In short, something a whole lot like Bitcoin. No, it isn’t the future, but it just may point the way.
[Image: Jeff Hester, Flickr]
More Bitcoin links, for the terminally interested: OMG they’re all totally crazy. No we’re not. Bitcoin, our greatest hope for liberty. Bitcoin, the Wikileaks of monetary policy. Bitcoin will be made illegal. The Bitcoin bubble. Bitcoin’s collusion problem. The Bitcoin lottery. Reality distortion. The Napster of banking. BoingBoing discussion. Safer Bitcoin transactions. Betting on Bitcoin. Is the Bitcoin algorithm new? Namecoin.
The Global Heritage Fund has launched a web-based global tracking platform that identifies, monitors and communicates threatened sites in developing countries to scientists, governments and local activists.
The Global Heritage Network brings data from Google Earth, Esri, DigitalGlobe together with social networking information to identify at-risk sites in places where the resources for such surveys are in short supply.
As Discovery News points out in their coverage, destroyed sites are marked with black spots, sites at immediate risk of destruction (rescue-needed) are red, at-risk sites orange and stable ones are marked with green.
So far, 40 of the 80 sites identified as rescue-needed have been supported with threat-and-planning support documents. Those sites include Great Zimbabwe, the old city of Damascus in Syria, Samarra in Iraq and Antigua Guatemala.
The value of saving and stabilizing these sites is not strictly intellectual and cultural. An earlier Global Heritage Network report estimated a $100 billion boon in tourism dollars annually by 2025 could result from preservation of the sites in its database.
Libya shuts down the Internet again. Libya shut down the Internet for a brief period in mid-February. Then again on March 3, it shut it down completely and it has remained off.
This has not had what we can presume is the desired end of this action, the end of the revolt. Nor has it kept information from getting out of the country. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, a lot of the information we get is distributed by Libyan expatriates who are in contact with protesters inside the country.
Saudi Facebook protester disappeared. Faisal Ahmed Abdul-Ahadwas, believed by some of his fellow protesters to be one of the administrators of a Facebook group calling for a “Day of Rage” on March 11, has disappeared and is believed to have been murdered by Saudi security. The Facebook page has 17,000 members.
The killing, if it was a killing, is a concrete example of how serious the kingdom is in saying it won’t “tolerate” protests.
Zimbabwe arrests 45 for viewing Egypt protest footage and makes its first “Facebook arrest.” 45 Zimbabweans were arrested for attending a meeting called “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?” where they watched DVDs of Egypt news coverage.
Zimbabwean Vikas Mavhudzi left a comment on the Facebook account of opposition politician Morgan Tsvangirai saying that the protesters in Egypt had a “unity of purpose worth emulating” and was arrested for “subverting a constitutional government.”
China’s internal security budget – including online censorship – passes military. Partially in response to the uprisings in the Middle East, China has blocked many words associated with those uprisings and begun to arrest protesters and possible protesters. Most dramatically, it has also increased its internal security budget by almost 14%. They are now spending more money on keeping the reins on their people than defending the nation from outside threats.
Syrian blogger dies. Karim Arbaji, who was imprisoned for publishing a poem the regime did not like, was freed from prison a year ago. Several days ago he died of a heart attack. It’s hard to imagine his time in prison did not negatively effect his health.
Facebook closes account of well-known Chinese critic. Michael Anti, a highly regarded Chinese blogger, had his Facebook account shut down allegedly because he used an alias. In the meantime, the company’s CEO has started a page for his dog. I’ll repeated that. Facebook shut down an account of an important thinker in contemporary China because “Michael Anti” isn’t a real person, and they made one for a dog.
Zimbabwe tends to remain out of the media spotlight, despite having one of the worst and most enduring dictatorships in the world. One of the reasons for this invisibility is that its resident tinhorn, Robert Mugabe, has outlawed independent domestic media and refused to allow international media in.
But people have a passion for news and that passion has gotten 45 Zimbabweans arrested and charged with treason in the southern African country. Their crime is having watched DVDs of recorded news coverage of the uprising in Egypt.
According to the Guardian, the Zimbabweans had been attending a meeting a called “Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?” The security forces seized two DVDs of North African uprising coverage, a video projector and a laptop computer.
Although Mugabe allowed opposition figure Morgan Tsvangirai to join the government last year, it seems clear the move was cosmetic and neither Tsvangirai nor his party or any other opposition figures have been able to make much headway in restoring civil society to a country that was once known as the “breadbasket of Southern Africa” and is now known as a wasteland.
Facebook User Arrested
Despite a lack of penetration of online media in Zimbabwe, the country has had bloggers and groups that used blogs and other social media to report on the government’s war against the poor squatters who set up shantytowns in the country’s larger cities.
Now, Vikas Mavhudzi has become the first Zimbabwean Facebook user to be arrested. Also earlier this month, Mavhudzi left a comment on the Facebook account of Morgan Tsvangirai and was arrested for “subverting a constitutional government,” according to SW Radio Africa.
“I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr. or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”
Both of these situations had in common a paranoid, violent regime that takes even interest in actions which happened a continent away as a direct threat to its continued power. Mugabe, originally a fighter against the British and an exemplar of peaceful transition from colonial to post-colonial rule, has become a poster child for the kind of “leader” who will do anything whatsoever to retain that rule, including destroying his country.
Anonymous had earlier targeted the country’s government in a series of distributed denial of services attacks. It is uncertain what, if anything, the group is still doing. Zimbabwe is another country the world has taken its eyes off of during the so-called Jasmine Revolution.
For the time being, Zimbabwe continues to work with the Chinese on a vast nationwide electronic eavesdropping center outside the capital city Harare. The intent is to be able to spy on any communication of any kind, including email, from the center.
If anyone from the Anonymous organization reads this, they are encouraged to give us all an update on their efforts in the comments.
2010 was a big year for Opera’s mobile browser, Opera Mini. The browser’s iPhone app was approved, saw one million downloads in the first day and since the mobile browser has been growing like gangbusters. Today, Opera released its state of the mobile report showing that Opera finished the year off with additional growth.
In December 2010, Opera Mini had over 85.5 million users, a 6.8% increase from November 2010 and an 84.7% increase in unique users since December 2009. Opera Mini users viewed over 46.7 billion pages in December 2010, which is a 4.6% percent increase since November, and a 125.5% increase in page views since December 2009.
In December 2010, Opera Mini users generated over 706 million MB of data for operators worldwide. Since November, the data consumed went up by 4.3%. Data in Opera Mini is compressed up to 90%. If this data were uncompressed, Opera Mini users would have viewed over 6.5 petabytes of data in December.
With the holiday shopping season in full swing in December, Opera took a look at traffic to e-commerce giant Amazon, with percentage of Opera Mini users who accessed Amazon (per month) went from 3.8% in January 2010 to 7.4% in December.
Shoppers in the U.S. and Germany doubled their number of page views to Amazon towards the end of the year, as compared to the start of 2010, as mobile shopping heated up.
Opera also delved into usage in ten countries in Africa (South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Sudan, Libya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Namibia), with page views in these countries increasing by 365%, unique users up 176% and data transferred up by 331%. Sudan and Zimbabwe lead the top 10 countries of the region in terms of page-view growth (4908.2 % and 2321.6 %, respectively).
And in the top 10 African countries, Facebook and Google vied for the website with the most visits. In 6 out of the top 10 countries, Facebook was number one. In the remaining 4 countries, Google was number one. YouTube, Yahoo, and Wikipedia were also highly visited in these countries.
An anonymous reader writes “Pro-WikiLeaks hacktivists have struck a blow against the-powers-that-be in Zimbabwe, bringing down three government websites through distributed denial-of-service attacks. The attacks appear to be in support of newspapers who published secret cables in the ongoing WikiLeaks saga, to the annoyance of the country’s leadership. Grace Mugabe, wife of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, was recently reported to be suing a newspaper for $15 million after it published a WikiLeaks cable that claimed she has benefited from illegal diamond trading. The Zimbabwe government’s online portal at www.gta.gov.zw and the official ZANU-PF website continue to be offline, and the Finance Ministry’s website now displays a message saying it is under maintenance.”
OCatenac writes “The Atlantic has an interesting story on the collateral damage of exposing diplomatic communications in Zimbabwe. From the article: ‘The reaction in Zimbabwe was swift. Zimbabwe’s Mugabe-appointed attorney general announced he was investigating the Prime Minister on treason charges based exclusively on the contents of the leaked cable. While it’s unlikely Tsvangirai could be convicted on the contents of the cable alone, the political damage has already been done. The cable provides Mugabe the opportunity to portray Tsvangirai as an agent of foreign governments working against the people of Zimbabwe. Furthermore, it could provide Mugabe with the pretense to abandon the coalition government that allowed Tsvangirai to become prime minister in 2009.’ Undoubtedly there are lots of things that our governments hide from us which should not be hidden but it’s a shame that no one from Wikileaks could be troubled to consider the potential repercussions of this particular exposure.”