The Bitstamp breach and the next big „platform“

Decentralization or Democratization of production and consumption has been a much discussed topic over the last decade within the entrepreneurial community. What it means is that the services that were once provided by big centralized and bureaucratic businesses are now provided by more specialized and smaller service providers that interact with their customers over a platform.
Others have been more eloquent or funny  in expressing this trend.

Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures proposes that there are three macro trends characterizing the last few decades (with respect to business opportunities or even in a more general sense with respect to human interaction):

  1. A transition from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology driven networks (if you want to just remember one trend remember this one).
  2. The unbundling of everything. Example: Today you consume one Article/Video, 10 years ago you bought the whole newspaper.
  3. We are always connected, always on the „grid“ which allows us to do business with everyone else on the grid, all the time.

With the examples below you will see that each of these trends apply to a different degree for each use case.

Examples for the decentralization of production:

  • Media corporations (TV Channels, Newspapers) -> Youtube Channels and Twitter
  • Department stores -> Ebay and Amazon merchants
  • Cab companies -> Uber
  • Hotel companies -> Airbnb

But also the consumption side of things has been „democratized“ in the sense that many have access to services and products that have only been available to a (often elitist) minority before:

  • Libraries (where a permission is needed) -> Google (the same service for everyone)
  • Wardrobe size computers -> Apple / PC (almost free for everyone compared to what we had 30 years ago)

Crypto Currencies like Bitcoin also follow this pattern. On the production side everyone can participate in the network by running a node or contribute to the open source code. But the major benefit lies on the consumer side: Prior to crypto currencies banking was reserved to those which enjoyed the fortune of having a bank account. Half the world today is „unbanked“ [1] which is a major efficiency obstacle for a global economy. Now everyone with a computer or a smartphone can have a bank account. The equation therefore might look like this:

  • Banks / Western Union -> „The blockchain“ or a few of them 

All these highly successful companies have something in common: They all are platforms or networks that allow individuals (consumers and producers) to plug into them allowing for a direct interaction between producer and consumer. [2]

But there are still elements of centralization, bundling and inefficiencies in the Bitcoin ecosystem which greatly limit the utility of the whole crypto currency concept: Big exchanges like Bitstamp that make millions [3] in transaction fees each year pose not only a risk for the funds of their customers [4] but also are expensive to use. So there is a real problem for an already existing customer base to be solved. The „pains“ for Bitcoin traders are:

  1. Expensive.
  2. Risk of lost or confiscated funds / non-transparent order books (no one really knows whether an exchange is solvent).
  3. No possibility to obtain a stable medium of exchange without going into fiat via an exchange.

There are ways to solve this problem. The technology Bitcoin is based on (blockchain technology) is evolving: The idea is to put the order book of exchanges on a blockchain. The open source project BitShares has designed it’s blockchain to realize such a decentralized exchange which is promoted here . Counterparty (counterparty.io) is another great project that has recognized the potential. Also worth discussing in this respect is Ripple as a network that connects gateways with customers. These decentralized exchanges could be the „next big platform“ not only to make the Bitcoin ecosystem more robust but also to realize (real world) assets trading on a distributed database beyond crypto currencies.

Having an asset exchange on a blockchain would give us the „platform“ consumers and producers (gateways) can plug into to do business with each other without the bureaucratic centralized middlemen in between (centralized clearing houses, banks, centralized Stock exchanges, brokers).

Now here is the entrepreneurial challenge I want to discuss with you: The decentralized book keeping and order matching would be done by a blockchain but what it needs is gateways that have one simple task: Gateways act like escrow agents that receive funds from customers (USD, EUR, BTC etc.), store them safely and issue IOUs as „User Issued Assets“ (also called colored coins or custom assets) on the blockchain [5] and promise to redeem such IOUs for the actual asset anytime. In other words: The customer of the gateway can either send USD to the gateway and get an USD-IOU-tokens (traded on the blockchain) back or the customer sends the USD-IOU-tokens to the gateway and get real USD back. The rest of the functions an exchange provides today (book keeping and order matching) is done by the blockchain respectively by the decentralized network of software instances that maintains the blockchain.

The challenges: The solution described above does not entirely overcome the „Risk of lost or confiscated funds“. Although it might be a an advancement if exchanges can focus entirely on issuing IOUs and compete with each other solely based on their trustworthiness to keep customers‘ assets safe. But such „crypto-fiat-gateways“ must still be trusted with customer funds and can loose them.

The solution might be this: This article suggests to do the trading / order book matching in BitAssets instead of in Gateway-IUOs. So instead of trading IOU-BTC against IOU-USD users could trade BitBTC against BitUSD. Gateways would therefore exchange for example USD for BitUSD. Since these BitAssets do not have a counterparty risk, the customers can not be defrauded. There are other risks involved though – mostly a sudden fall of the collateral backing the BitAssets. These two documents helped me understand the system: http://bytemaster.bitshares.org/article/2014/12/20/BitShares-as-a-Bank/ http://bytemaster.bitshares.org/article/2014/12/18/What-are-BitShares-Market-Pegged-Assets/.

Outlook: You could have the whole New York Stock exchange on a blockchain with this concept. The overall point I want to make is a general one: Blockchain technology has the potential to decentralize not only currency, which is what Bitcoin has begun to do, but the entire Bitcoin ecosystem. And the decentralization of the Bitcoin ecosystem can then serve as a blueprint to decentralize other areas of business so that asset trading becomes democratized on a consumer side as well as on a production side (since the barriers to entry of being a gateway are lower then for being an exchange).

Reddit link to discuss this article.

[1] http://econ.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTGLOBALFINREPORT/0,,contentMDK:23489619~pagePK:64168182~piPK:64168060~theSitePK:8816097,00.html
[2] I admit that this analogy is a bit off with Apple.
[3] The biggest exchange Bistamp makes almost a million $ per month, see http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2014/06/26/bitcoin-bitstamp/
[4] Widely known is the failure of the exchange Mt. Gox which lost the funds of it’s customers, http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mt.Gox
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzruOULgmng

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