The digital currency known as bitcoin was created in 2009 by a person called Satoshi Nakamoto, but whose true identity has never been established. It is legal to use bitcoin in the United States, and payments are subject to the same taxes and reporting requirements as any other currency.
There is no physical bitcoin currency the way there is a dollar, euro or pound. It exists only on the Internet, usually in a digital wallet, which is software that stores relevant information such as the private security key that enables transactions. Ledgers known as blockchains are used to keep track of the existence of bitcoin. It can be given directly to or received from anyone who has a bitcoin address via so-called peer-to-peer transactions. It is also traded on various exchanges around the world, which is how its value is established.
Legal and Regulatory Issues
Bitcoin exists in a deregulated marketplace; there is no centralized issuing authority and no way to track back to the company or individual who created the bitcoin. There is no personal information required to open a bitcoin account or to make a payment from an account as there is with a bank account. There is no oversight designed to ensure the information on the ledger is true and correct.
The Mt. Gox bankruptcy in July 2014 brought to the forefront the risk inherent in the system. Roughly $500 million worth of bitcoin listed on the company's ledgers did not exist. In addition to the money that account holders lost, the blow to confidence in the currency drove its global valuation down by $3 billion in a matter of weeks. The system had been established to eliminate the risk of involving third parties in transactions, but the bankruptcy highlighted the risks that exist in peer-to-peer transactions.
Bitcoin payments in the U.S. are subject to the same anti-money laundering regulations that apply to transactions in traditional currencies, and to payments by banks and other financial institutions. However, the anonymity of these transactions makes it far easier to flout the rules. There are concerns, voiced by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that terrorists may use bitcoin because of its anonymity. Drug traffickers are known to use it, with the best-known example being the Silk Road market. This was a section of the so-called dark Web where users could buy illicit drugs; all transactions on the Silk Road were done via bitcoin. It was eventually shut down by the FBI in October 2013, and its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, is serving multiple life sentences. However, numerous other dark Web bitcoin-based markets have reportedly taken its place.
Bitcoin can be transferred from one country to another without limitation. However, the exchange rate against other currencies can be very volatile. This is partly because the price is often driven by speculation, but also because it is a fairly small market compared with other currencies.
Some countries explicitly permit the use of bitcoin, including Canada and Australia. It is prohibited in Iceland, which has had strict capital controls since the collapse of its banks during the 2008 financial crisis. China allows private individuals to hold and trade bitcoin, but participation by banks and other financial institutions is prohibited. The European Union does not have an overall position but may become restrictive in the wake of the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.