Bitcoin and blockchain: Risks and opportunities

Written by Eva Maydell on 24 April 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

While bitcoin and blockchain may sound similar, they serve different purposes and each presents its own risks and opportunities, writes Eva Maydell.

Eva Maydell | Photo credit: Natalie Hill


This article was originally published by Friends of Europe.

Blockchain and bitcoin have been the two hottest tech words in recent months, even for those outside of tech circles. While the two may sound similar, they serve entirely di¬fferent purposes. 

Blockchain is a revolutionary digital technology that allows digital information to be distributed but not copied. Labelled by some as “the backbone of a new type of internet”, it can be used for many kinds of applications. 

Bitcoin, on the other hand, is a cryptocurrency which, despite being the first and the most prominent of cryptocurrencies so far, is only one of the potentially thousands of applications based on blockchain technology.


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Most experts believe blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionise industries from the bottom-up and to create new business models such as a peer-to-peer communities. However, many of them are far less certain about the future of cryptocurrencies. Yet why is this the case? To see why, we must dig into some of the potential risks cryptocurrencies face.

Over 90 per cent of all cybersecurity breaches come as a result of human error - either due to a lack of awareness of the risks or a lack of sufficient digital skills. In this context, there are many concerns about our citizens being prepared for a digital currency with transactions based on cryptography. Moreover, the theft or a loss of the private key to one’s personal account can happen as a result of technological bugs, malware software or viruses.

Even though wallet applications provide different methods for securing the key, there is little doubt that when game-changing technologies such as quantum computing become operational, they will be first employed with malicious intent by skilful cybercriminals before being used for high-level encryption for the mass client.

This is why we need to boost the digital skills of our citizens. If we want Europe to be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution and maintain its global competitiveness despite demographic changes, we need more skilled ICT specialists as well as an increase in our R&D funding.

However, if we are to use cryptocurrencies, we need to eradicate the current level of 40 per cent in digital skills illiteracy. We need ‘mass digital skills enlightenment’. 

As we know from history, enlightenment stems from education. Improving the quality of teaching and equipping educators with the instruments and skills they need is key to o¬ffer an e¬ffective 21st century learning environment and to promote digital literacy. 

For this reason in 2015, together with partners from the business and NGO sectors, we created a platform called ‘Education Bulgaria 2030’. This stakeholder network is like no other in Europe.

Some of Bulgaria’s biggest private companies, NGOs and prominent public figures work together towards a common vision of better, more relevant and digitally oriented education.

However, reducing the digital skills gap requires wide, far-reaching efforts. That is why the news that more than one million Europeans took their first steps in coding during the EU Code Week in the span of just a few days in October 2017 deserves to be more widely celebrated.

But are cryptocurrencies digital money or commodities? While regulators all over the world are struggling to define cryptocurrencies, their total market valuation reached $420bn in 2017 and is expected to hit $1 trillion in 2018. This is a lot of real money invested in an unregulated, risky and often speculative market. The potential consequences that a crash in such a big a market could trigger in our real economies could be problematic.

The relatively ‘wild’ state of the new market of cryptocurrencies and the lack of clear definition means that some regulators can experiment with measures that have not been tested in practice yet.

For instance, in September 2017, China banned all initial coin offerings (ICOs). Companies use these to create their own cryptomoney and subsequently sell to the public. South Korea has also banned ICOs and anonymous trading, while Japan has introduced a licensing regime for cryptocurrency exchanges.

On 25 January 2018, Russia introduced a draft law on the regulation of digital assets and ICOs, which outlines requirements for both projects that launch ICOs and for investors who wish to participate in the token sales.

Regulating cryptocurrency markets is a high-stakes, complicated, and fast-moving work in progress. The stakes are high because hundreds of billions of real dollars are on the line and any misjudged regulatory measure poses risks for market players and end customers.

Cryptocurrencies also face concerns about their sustainability. Unless cryptocurrencies gain mass public trust and support from central authorities, such as features and functions of money, they risk remaining simply commodities, such as precious metals, the value of which can only be converted in euros or dollars.

If all bitcoin miners resided in one country, it would be the 50th most energy-consuming country in the world, ahead of developed countries such as Portugal, Singapore and Ireland. The problem with the extensive electricity consumption is embedded into the core of the currency because it has to be ‘mined’ online. 

Together with the fact that the energy needed for one bitcoin transaction is enough for 500,000 money transactions by Visa or MasterCard, this raises further questions on the long-term sustainability of cryptocurrencies. These issues, however, are risks faced by cryptocurrencies only, not the whole blockchain technology.

While many believe that blockchain can be as disruptive as the foundation of the internet itself, 10 years after its launch, it is hardly used in a practical and consumer-oriented manner. Exceptions such as ReCheck, a Bulgarian start-up that allows consumers to register and manage their physical items on blockchain, are in the minority.

To stimulate blockchain initiatives within the EU, Parliament and the Commission set up the EU blockchain observatory and forum at the beginning of 2018. It will serve as a knowledge and inspiration hub for all interested in the topic. 

The reality is that decisions by policymakers will influence whether cryptocurrencies develop into more than speculative prone commodities, while blockchain’s faith will be determined by its ability to solve practical consumer and business problems.

 

About the author

Eva Maydell (EPP, BG) is a member of Parliament’s internal market and consumer protection committee

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