What are Online Currencies?

Bitcoin and other online currencies, explained

man holding gold bitcoins in his upturned palmsIn the past several years, one of the most confusing terms to appear in the financial world has been “online currency” or, more specifically, “cryptocurrency.” Some bear seemingly silly names, such as the internet-meme-inspired Dogecoin, but the most famous, and certainly the most discussed, is Bitcoin.

However, the question remains: just what are these online currencies?

The basics
As TechRepublic points out, there are a few terms commonly used interchangeably for online currency, but which have different meanings. The first is “virtual currency” or “online currency,” which was identified by the U.S. Department of Treasury as operating like traditional currency but without legal tender. The European Central Bank defined it as unregulated digital money, usually under control of its developers, and used among specific online communities.

The second term is “digital currency,” which is a virtual currency that is created and stored electronically.

The third term is “cryptocurrency,” i.e. a digital currency which uses cryptography for security to make it difficult to counterfeit. This most specific subset, of which Bitcoin is the best example, is notable for not being issued by a central authority.

Cryptocurrencies are the most-used online currencies and have gained significant traction with established merchants as well as individuals. However, security is a higher risk. CNN Tech points out that Bitcoin in particular is stored either on a personal computer, where the coins can be accidentally deleted or destroyed by viruses; or the cloud, which can be hacked.

Value of these currencies, according to Bitconnect, is affected by a large number of factors, such as supply and demand and its utility, but is made “because people think it has value and use it as a unit of exchange.”

The reasoning
According to a paper published by the creator or creators of Bitcoin under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, one major reason for the creation of cryptocurrencies is to eliminate the need for a “trusted third party” in online transactions, which for the most part are financial institutions. This also eliminates transaction fees and the need to share personal information along with the currency, which previously was needed to ensure trust between the buyer and seller.

More plainly, this means a transaction that only involves the buyer and seller with no associated handling fees, which can be performed entirely anonymously.

The sources
To describe where these currencies come from, we will stick with Bitcoin, as the most widespread cryptocurrency.

According to CNN Tech, Bitcoins are generated by a process known as “mining,” where people use computers to solve complex math problems with specific, open-source software. In this way, the more powerful a computer is, the faster is can “mine” for the specific number of possible Bitcoins—although, as TechRepublic points out, this process places high demands on hardware power and uses a lot of energy, leading some groups of people to pool the power of their computers and share the resulting profits.

The future
The future of these online currencies is presently unclear. Bitconnect points out that the value of online currency faces significant legal and governmental issues, as most countries have yet to form legal precedents relating to them. Some have even banned their use, or given them an official status so that they can be taxed as income. In general, regulations surrounding online currencies are still in development.

Meanwhile, the future within the cryptocurrency community, which according to Investopedia uses over 700 different currencies, is also uncertain. Wired explains that there is a growing movement to merge all of the online currencies with technology that would allow each to interact with one another, known as the “interledger protocol.” This is led by the company which oversees the cryptocurrency Ripple, with support from Microsoft and the World Wide Web Consortium. In essence, this would allow one person to send any currency and have it arrive as any other currency.

In any case, online currencies are clearly not about to disappear, and could potentially have a great effect on the future of worldwide commerce.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

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