Digital currency (digital money, electronic money or electronic currency) is a type of currency available in digital form (in contrast to physical, such as banknotes and coins). It exhibits properties similar to physical currencies, but can allow for instantaneous transactions and borderless transfer-of-ownership. Examples include virtual currencies and cryptocurrencies and central bank issued money accounted for in a computer database (including digital base money). Like traditional money, these currencies may be used to buy physical goods and services, but may also be restricted to certain communities such as for use inside an online game or social network.
Digital currency is a money balance recorded electronically on a stored-value card or other device. Another form of electronic money is network money, allowing the transfer of value on computer networks, particularly the Internet. Electronic money is also a claim on a private bank or other financial institution such as bank deposits.
Digital money can either be centralized, where there is a central point of control over the money supply, or decentralized, where the control over the money supply can come from various sources.
In 1983, a research paper by David Chaum introduced the idea of digital cash. In 1990, he founded DigiCash, an electronic cash company, in Amsterdam to commercialize the ideas in his research. It filed for bankruptcy in 1998. In 1999, Chaum left the company.
In 1997, Coca-Cola offered buying from vending machines using mobile payments. After that PayPal emerged in 1998. Other systems followed suit, such as e-gold, but it faced issues because it was used by criminals and was closed by U.S Department of Justice in 2005. In 2008, bitcoin was introduced, which marked the start of digital currencies.
Origins of digital currencies date back to the 1990s Dot-com bubble. One of the first was E-gold, founded in 1996 and backed by gold. Another known digital currency service was Liberty Reserve, founded in 2006; it let users convert dollars or euros to Liberty Reserve Dollars or Euros, and exchange them freely with one another at a 1% fee. Both services were centralized, reputed to be used for money laundering, and inevitably shut down by the U.S. government. Q coins or QQ coins, were used as a type of commodity-based digital currency on Tencent QQ's messaging platform and emerged in early 2005. Q coins were so effective in China that they were said to have had a destabilizing effect on the Chinese Yuan currency due to speculation. Recent interest in cryptocurrencies has prompted renewed interest in digital currencies, with bitcoin, introduced in 2008, becoming the most widely used and accepted digital currency.
According to the European Central Bank's 2015 "Virtual currency schemes – a further analysis" report, virtual currency is a digital representation of value, not issued by a central bank, credit institution or e-money institution, which, in some circumstances, can be used as an alternative to money. In the previous report of October 2012, the virtual currency was defined as a type of unregulated, digital money, which is issued and usually controlled by its developers, and used and accepted among the members of a specific virtual community.
According to the Bank for International Settlements' November 2015 "Digital currencies" report, it is an asset represented in digital form and having some monetary characteristics. Digital currency can be denominated to a sovereign currency and issued by the issuer responsible to redeem digital money for cash. In that case, digital currency represents electronic money (e-money). Digital currency denominated in its own units of value or with decentralized or automatic issuance will be considered as a virtual currency.
As such, bitcoin is a digital currency but also a type of virtual currency. Bitcoin and its alternatives are based on cryptographic algorithms, so these kinds of virtual currencies are also called cryptocurrencies.
Most of the traditional money supply is bank money held on computers. This is also considered digital currency. One could argue that our increasingly cashless society means that all currencies are becoming digital, but they are not presented to us as such.
A number of electronic money systems use contactless payment transfer in order to facilitate easy payment and give the payee more confidence in not letting go of their electronic wallet during the transaction.
A cryptocurrency is a type of digital asset that relies on cryptography for chaining together digital signatures of asset transfers, peer-to-peer networking and decentralization. In some cases a proof-of-work or proof-of-stake scheme is used to create and manage the currency.
Cryptocurrencies allow electronic money systems to be decentralized. The first and most popular system is bitcoin, a peer-to-peer electronic monetary system based on cryptography.
A virtual currency has been defined in 2012 by the European Central Bank as "a type of unregulated, digital money, which is issued and usually controlled by its developers, and used and accepted among the members of a specific virtual community". The US Department of Treasury in 2013 defined it more tersely as "a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency". The key attribute a virtual currency does not have according to these definitions, is the status as legal tender.
Since 2001, the European Union has implemented the E-Money Directive "on the taking up, pursuit and prudential supervision of the business of electronic money institutions" last amended in 2009. Doubts on the real nature of EU electronic money have arisen, since calls have been made in connection with the 2007 EU Payment Services Directive in favor of merging payment institutions and electronic money institutions. Such a merger could mean that electronic money is of the same nature as bank money or scriptural money.
In the United States, electronic money is governed by Article 4A of the Uniform Commercial Code for wholesale transactions and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act for consumer transactions. Provider's responsibility and consumer's liability are regulated under Regulation E.
Virtual currencies pose challenges for central banks, financial regulators, departments or ministries of finance, as well as fiscal authorities and statistical authorities.
On March 20, 2013, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network issued a guidance to clarify how the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act applied to persons creating, exchanging, and transmitting virtual currencies.
In July 2014, the New York State Department of Financial Services proposed the most comprehensive regulation of virtual currencies to date, commonly called BitLicense. Unlike the US federal regulators it has gathered input from bitcoin supporters and the financial industry through public hearings and a comment period until 21 October 2014 to customize the rules. The proposal per NY DFS press release “sought to strike an appropriate balance that helps protect consumers and root out illegal activity". It has been criticized by smaller companies to favor established institutions, and Chinese bitcoin exchanges have complained that the rules are "overly broad in its application outside the United States".
As of 2016, over 24 countries are investing in distributed ledger technologies (DLT) with $1.4bn in investments. In addition, over 90 central banks are engaged in DLT discussions, including implications of a central bank issued digital currency.
The Bank of Canada teamed up with the nation’s five largest banks — and the blockchain consulting firm R3 — for what was known as Project Jasper. In a simulation run in 2016, the central bank issued CAD-Coins onto a blockchain similar Ethereum. The banks used the CAD-Coins to exchange money the way they do at the end of each day to settle their master accounts.
A deputy governor at the central bank of China, Fan Yifei, wrote that "the conditions are ripe for digital currencies, which can reduce operating costs, increase efficiency and enable a wide range of new applications". According to Fan Yifei, the best way to take advantage of the situation is for central banks to take the lead, both in supervising private digital currencies and in developing digital legal tender of their own.
The Danish government proposed getting rid of the obligation for selected retailers to accept payment in cash, moving the country closer to a "cashless" economy. The Danish Chamber of Commerce is backing the move. Nearly a third of the Danish population uses MobilePay, a smartphone application for transferring money.
A law passed by the National Assembly of Ecuador gives the government permission to make payments in electronic currency and proposes the creation of a national digital currency. "Electronic money will stimulate the economy; it will be possible to attract more Ecuadorian citizens, especially those who do not have checking or savings accounts and credit cards alone. The electronic currency will be backed by the assets of the Central Bank of Ecuador", the National Assembly said in a statement. In December 2015, Sistema de Dinero Electrónico ("electronic money system") was launched, making Ecuador the first country with a state-run electronic payment system.
Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is an instant real-time payment system developed by National Payments Corporation of India facilitating inter-bank transactions. The interface is regulated by the Reserve Bank of India and works by instantly transferring funds between two bank accounts on a mobile platform. UPI is built over Immediate Payment Service(IMPS) for transferring funds. Being a digital payment system it is available 24*7 and across public holidays. Unlike traditional mobile wallets, which takes a specified amount of money from user and stores it in its own accounts, UPI withdraws and deposits funds directly from the bank account whenever a transaction is requested. It uses Virtual Payment Address (a unique ID provided by the bank), Account Number with IFS Code, Mobile Number with MMID (Mobile Money Identifier), Aadhaar Number, or a one-time use Virtual ID. An UPI-PIN (UPI Personal Identification number that one creates on the UPI app of the bank) is required to confirm each payment.
Government-controlled Sberbank of Russia owns Yandex.Money – electronic payment service and digital currency of the same name. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has signed off on regulation of ICOs and cryptocurrency mining by July 2018.
South Korea plans national digital currency using a Blockchain. The chairman of South Korea’s Financial Services Commission (FSC), Yim Jong-yong, announced that his department will "Lay the systemic groundwork for the spread of digital currency." South Korea has already announced plans to discontinue coins by the year 2020.
Sweden is in the process of replacing all of its physical banknotes, and most of its coins by mid 2017. However the new banknotes and coins of the Swedish krona will probably be circulating at about half the 2007 peak of 12,494 kronor per capita. The Riksbank is planning to begin discussions of an electronic currency issued by the central bank to which "is not to replace cash, but to act as complement to it". Deputy Governor Cecilia Skingsley states that cash will continue to spiral out of use in Sweden, and while it is currently fairly easy to get cash in Sweden, it is often very difficult to deposit it into bank accounts, especially in rural areas. No decision has been currently made about the decision to create "e-krona". In her speech Skingsley states: "The first question is whether e-krona should be booked in accounts or whether the ekrona should be some form of digitally transferable unit that does not need an underlying account structure, roughly like cash." Skingsley also states: "Another important question is whether the Riksbank should issue e-krona directly to the general public or go via the banks, as we do now with banknotes and coins." Other questions will be addressed like interest rates, should they be positive, negative, or zero?
In 2016, a city government first accepted digital currency in payment of city fees. Zug, Switzerland, added bitcoin as a means of paying small amounts, up to 200 SFr., in a test and an attempt to advance Zug as a region that is advancing future technologies. In order to reduce risk, Zug immediately converts any bitcoin received into the Swiss currency.
The Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government advised his Prime Minister and Parliament to consider using a blockchain-based digital currency.
The chief economist of Bank of England, the central bank of the United Kingdom, proposed abolition of paper currency. The Bank has also taken an interest in bitcoin. In 2016 it has embarked on a multi-year research programme to explore the implications of a central bank issued digital currency. The Bank of England has produced several research papers on the topic. One suggests that the economic benefits of issuing a digital currency on a distributed ledger could add as much as 3 percent to a country's economic output. The Bank said that it wanted the next version of the bank’s basic software infrastructure to be compatible with distributed ledgers.
The National Bank of Ukraine is considering a creation of its own issuance/turnover/servicing system for a blockchain-based national cryptocurrency. The regulator also announced that blockchain could be a part of a national project called "Cashless Economy".
Hard electronic currency does not have the ability to be disputed or reversed when used. It is nearly impossible to reverse a transaction, justified or not. It is very similar to cash. Advantages of this system include it being cheaper to operate, and transactions are instantaneous. Western Union, KlickEx and Bitcoin are examples of this type of currency.
Soft electronic currencies are the opposite of hard electronic currencies. Payments can be reversed. Usually when a payment is reversed there is a "clearing time." This can take 72 hours or more. Examples of soft currencies are PayPal and any type of credit card. A hard currency can be "softened" with a third party service.
Many existing digital currencies have not yet seen widespread usage, and may not be easily used or exchanged. Banks generally do not accept or offer services for them. There are concerns that cryptocurrencies are extremely risky due to their very high volatility and potential for pump and dump schemes. Regulators in several countries have warned against their use and some have taken concrete regulatory measures to dissuade users. The non-cryptocurrencies are all centralized. As such, they may be shut down or seized by a government at any time. The more anonymous a currency is, the more attractive it is to criminals, regardless of the intentions of its creators. Forbes writer Tim Worstall has written that the value of bitcoin is largely derived from speculative trading. Bitcoin has also been criticised for its energy inefficient SHA-256-based proof of work.
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