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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.