Spain turns to Bitcoin, prompting incoherent discussion on Today

There are problems with the currency. But not those problems.

Wired's Ian Steadman reported yesterday about the surge in downloads of Bitcoin apps in Spain, noting that:

Three iOS apps – Bitcoin Gold, Bitcoin Ticker and Bitcoin App – each jumped up the App Store charts in Spain, all on the same day, as the news broke from Cyprus. Compare their download histories to those from a country like the UK and it's clear that the upward trend is more pronounced in the more at-risk nation. Bitcoin Gold's all-time high ranking of 83 in Spain came on 17 March; for Bitcoin Ticker, 68 on 17 March; Bitcoin App reached a high of 147 on 19 March. The highest rankings for those apps in the UK are lower – 293, 201 and 48 –and they were all records set months or even years ago.

That surge has been noticed by others, too – including Radio 4's Today Programme, which had a little interview with an economist about the fledgling currency. Sadly, they didn't really do themselves proud. A choice excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: A currency supply has to be limited, otherwise it can be devalued and copied. Who limits it? Who controls it, if there's no central bank?

INTERVIEWEE: Well, it's all controLled by users of the bitcoin community, and that's the reason why it has become so popular in recent years.

INTERVIEWER: What, they're all unbelievably virtuous, they all control it? What's the mechanism?

INTERVIEWEE: Any currency, and any asset class, is basically predicated on trust. We trust the central bank, we have full faith in credit, so we go into a shop and we trust that our £20 note is freely exchangeable for £20 of goods.

Now, heaven knows I'm not the biggest fan of the digital currency, but this is doing it an enormous disservice.

The reason why gets a bit technical, but if you want to know more about the currency, it's worth learning how it works. If not, skip the next five paragraphs.

The heart of bitcoin is based on something called public-key cryptography. This technique – used throughout the web, whenever security is needed – uses very large prime numbers to create a form of encryption where the key used to lock data is different from, but related to, the key used to unlock it. What that means is that you can send copies of the first key far and wide, and so long as you keep the second key hidden, other people can encrypt information which only you can then decrypt.

But there's a second thing the technology allows. If you use your private key to lock the data, then anyone can unlock it with your – and only your – public key. That lets you sign messages in a way which, so long as people are certain that it really is your public key they have, proves it was you who wrote it.

A bitcoin is, in its purest form, a list of past transactions signed with private keys and verified with public keys. So long as you keep your private key secret, it is impossible for other people to "spend" bitcoins which the network knows are held by you, because those transactions wouldn't be accepted.

It bitcoin were a centralised currency, that would be that. But it's decentralised, and that means that there's a second problem to overcome. I could send one bitcoin to Alice with her key added to the end, and the same bitcoin to Bob with his added on. Until the two of them spoke, they wouldn't know who had the "real" coin and who had the fake one.

The way bitcoin solves this is the really clever part of the whole thing. All transactions are broadcast throughout the network, and then certain computers – called "miners", analogously to gold – work to group them into a timestamped block every ten minutes. Multiple computers do this at once, because the calculations required to make a new block are, deliberately, very difficult. Honesty is therefore enforced by the fact that the easiest group to co-ordinate is the one telling the truth about which transactions came first.

OK, back to the non-tech stuff. How is this linked to inflation? Well, if your computer is the one which solves the puzzle and makes the block, you get some free bitcoins. Currently, it's 25 every block, but that number halves every four years until it drops to 0.00 in the year 2140.

And that's it. That's the only way new coins are created, and there's just over 1.25 million made each year. So there's nothing to do with "trust" in the whole system: low inflation is inherent to the entire idea. In fact, that's actually one of the things used to attack bitcoin; orthodox economics holds that a low level of inflation is good, because it encourages people to spend rather than horde. If there was a bitcoin economy the size of a nation, it would be in a permanent state of recession, and there would be no possiblity of monetary policy saving the day.

The worst thing is, the interviewee apparently knew this, because later on in the segment, he said:

They're so popular because they offer a little bit of something new, a little bit of security, an anti-inflation side of things, as well, because they've built something into the trading algorithm which means that it actually deflates over the cause of the lifetime.

Bitcoin might or might not work as a currency – you can tell what side I come on – but if Today is going to cover it, they ought to cover it well.

Of course, none of what Today actually discussed helps address the real question: are the panicky Spanish savers doing the smart thing by moving their money into bitcoin? (That's assuming they actually are; as Steadman points out, iOS is small fry in Spain, and three apps increasing their sales figures does not an exodus make.) It depends what they are fleeing.

If the fear is that the Spanish banks might implement a Cypriot-style deposit tax, then bitcoin would help. As a potentially anonymous currency, it's a tax avoider's – and tax evader's – dream, but only insofar as taking money out of the bank and keeping it in cash under the bed is. You can keep your money hidden from the tax man, but when you come to spend it, you're going to raise questions. In fact, the whole thing comes back full circle, because with Cyprus on lock-down, money laundering got a bit harder to do.

If your fear instead is Spain exiting the euro and devaluing, then bitcoin is a slightly better choice – but again, only so good as holding your money in dollars in a safe. But the exchange rate matters here. If I'm right, it's actually considerably worse than holding dollars in a safe. The bubble will burst, the exchange rate will plummet, and your bitcoins, measured in a currency you can actually use to buy food in, will lose all their value.

If I'm wrong, and the 100 per cent month-on-month increase continues, or even just levels off, then moving all your money into it could leave you rich. Who knows? That's the gamble you're taking

But fundamentally, the reason for switching to bitcoin from any other currency is that you have lost trust in the very concept of governments looking after money. If you are sitting in the eurozone at the moment, that might be an understandable belief. But I still have very little hope that switching from a currency with bad monetary policy to a currency where monetary policy is deliberately impossible will help matters to any great deal.

Spaincoin! Bitspain? Spitcoin. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Hern

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.