Speakers & AuthoritiesTechnology

Bitcoin and the Promise (and Peril) of Our Open Networks

By January 22, 2014 February 23rd, 2016 No Comments

The world is all abuzz about bitcoin. The closest thing to cash in the digital realm, its valuation has skyrocketed, fueled in part by big brands’ recent decisions to accept it as payment, including major retailer Overstock.com and NBA team the Sacramento Kings. And as interest in and adoption of the cryptocurrency continues to soar, it has the potential to change how millions of people conduct everyday business.

A product of open source intelligence, bitcoin is emerging as a global payment platform operating through smartphones, tablets and other devices. But in an age of credit card fraud, data breaches and other high-profile cyber crime, it adds yet another layer to the ongoing and increasingly complex debate: are open systems – our computers and the internet – worth the risks? According to cyber security expert and Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, the answer is yes.

Internet security issues are real and potentially dangerous, but they should not demand a shift away from generative systems toward simpler, locked-down devices, he says. Doing so would prevent an extraordinary number of people from expressing themselves in speech, art or code. Generative systems – or those that allow and depend on innovation by users, including the internet, and products and services like bitcoin that operate through them – may be susceptible to a growing scourge of spam, viruses, identity theft and cyber terrorism, but they are powerful, valuable tools that foster connectivity and creativity.

“We face paired dangers,” Zittrain cautions. “The first is our networks are successfully attacked. The second is our fear of attack will cause us to destroy what makes the internet special.” His advice: we must combat their threats while protecting their promise of innovation.

The leading internet scholar, Zittrain has long studied the legal, technological and world-shaking aspects of quickly morphing virtual terrains. To learn more about bitcoin, listen to Zittrain’s recent “techsplainer” interview with Marketplace. You might also be interested in following his blog at jz.org for more of his insights about the future of the internet (and how to stop it), as well as the opportunities – and threats – of open technologies.