Bitcoin may be let loose now Silk Road has been shut down

Now that Silk Road has closed without any discernible damage to Bitcoin's value, maybe we can accept it's here to stay.

You can't kill Bitcoin. It will not die. The Silk Road shutdown is the second event to challenge its stability and it’s come through with barely a scratch. And, despite the libertarian beliefs of many of its advocates, in part that’s due to Bitcoin going legit in the eyes of the law.

To recap, Silk Road was an online marketplace where users could buy and sell (almost) anything. Mostly that meant drugs, and in the criminal complaint filed by the FBI against its alleged owner/operator Ross Ulbricht it lists 1,229,465 transactions between 6 February and 23 July 2013 - or 7,362 transactions a day - all of which were conducted using Bitcoin.

Indeed, up until this year the story of Bitcoin and the story of Silk Road were essentially the same. The unstable bubble that grew over the first three months of 2013 to burst in April was driven at least partly by media commentary about Bitcoin being a bubble, and it had to be a bubble because there's no reason to use Bitcoin for anything other than gambling or drugs.

Except, Bitcoin recovered relatively quickly - and its price has remained stable right up until the FBI arrested Ulbricht in San Francisco. People no longer bother keeping lists of businesses that accept Bitcoin up to date because there are just too many, and it began to gain something quite crucial to its long-term survival - legitimacy.

Here's a graph that shows what I mean:

That's the trading chart for the past month on Mt Gox, the world’s largest Bitcoin trading exchange. That big spike is the market reacting to the news of Ulbricht’s arrest, and while the price drops for maybe a day, it’s soon back to the level it was before the FBI’s announcement. That’s not panic selling by Bitcoin users, worried that their assets will soon be worthless.

Now look at this:

Perhaps this is more tenuous as evidence, but that’s the Google Trends data for mentions of Bitcoin versus mentions of Silk Road. They both jump as the arrest is reported around the world, but Bitcoin by not as much. It's as if Bitcoin isn't as central to the story of Silk Road as it once was. The irony here, for a currency that sidesteps government authority, is that governments may have helped in this.

The stereotype of the Bitcoin advocate is someone who’s a libertarian, an Ayn Rand fan, a minarchist who feels that a return to the gold standard would solve most of the world’s economic problems. Bitcoin - the ever-deflating, decentralised, uncontrollable currency - is meant to be the 21st century gold standard. However, despite Bitcoin’s clear ability to be used to circumvent the law, many of its functions can be easily absorbed by the rest of the legitimate economy.

Bitcoin’s central blockchain records every transaction, and if a user is public about owning a wallet there’s no way they can send or receive funds without a note being generated. That’s great for tax agencies. “Tumblers” - which split up transactions into tiny amounts and mix them with other payments to make them so hard to trace even the NSA can’t manage it - can be used for laundering cash, but they’re not built into the infrastructure.

Several governments have given their blessings for Bitcoin. There's been a meeting at Number 10 about drawing up a regulatory framework, and the German government has recognised it as "private money". The US government has subpoenaed large exchanges to get an idea of what kind of tax evasion might be happening, and those exchanges haven't really resisted. Some of them have actually started doing what most other industries do, and started sending lobbyists to Washington DC.

Brian Patrick Eha at the New Yorker asked the question "Could the Silk Road closure be good for Bitcoin?" two days after the arrest of Ulbricht, before it became clear that Bitcoin's price had, at least, been unaffected. He quotes Adam Levine, the editor-in-chief of the Let's Talk Bitcoin! podcast:

It seems inevitable that regulation will be a part of mainstream legitimacy for Bitcoin," Levine said. "The thought is, even if it changes it for the worse a little bit, it will gain much more in legitimacy.

That’s going to worry a lot of the people who built Bitcoin up to where it is now, but could be the price it pays for actually fulfilling some of its hyped potential.

A Bitcoin keychain. Photo: BTC Keychain/Flickr

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.