We've had independent cryptocurrency exchanges, "roll-your-own" cloud-based exchange services ... and now it looks as though we are heading towards complete decentralization.
Welcome to the Skype of bitcoin exchanges.
A new company is about to launch a service that it says will entirely decentralize alternative currency exchanges, making it practically impossible for regulators to shut them down. MetaLair -- based in Sussex in the UK -- will soon unveil an open-source software client that will serve as a cryptocurrency wallet and exchange client. While traditional exchanges need a back-end trading system, this won't.
There have been very few other attempts at P2P bitcoin exchanges. Dark Exchange is a client that posts searchable bitcoin trade requests online. But the as-yet unnamed MetaLair product will apparently go far further. According to co-founder Jonathan Turrall, it will enable trading directly from one client to another, in any cryptocurrency, while also warding off the double-spending problem.
Turrall likened it to a Skype for cryptocurrency exchanges. Just as Skype decentralized the VoIP network, so this will fragment and distribute the exchange of cryptocurrencies. But unlike Skype, which is proprietary, this will be an open protocol, replicable by anyone.
Users will be able to exchange any cryptocurrency on the network without having it approved by an exchange, Turrall said. Currently, exchanges must approve the currencies that can be swapped on their network, leading to patchy – and in some cases nonexistent – exchange support for many alternative currencies. Incumbent Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox is still mulling the inclusion of Litecoin, but there are many others (more, even, than listed here).
Exchange centralization and dependence on the banking network has been a problem for Bitcoin in the past. Mt. Gox, which processes around 80 percent of exchange transactions, has suffered from DDoS attacks. Other exchanges have been hacked. Almost half of all exchanges succumb to these problems and shut down.
Regulators are also coming down increasingly hard on exchanges that don't comply with their rules. Most recently, Mt. Gox funds held by a subsidiary of the exchange and the Dwolla payment service were seized by US authorities, who claimed that Mt. Gox didn't have the necessary money services businesses license. Bitcoin 24 had its bank account shuttered by law enforcement.
"You're going to get people who are swapping dollars for bitcoins, and it will be one bank account transaction, where they see $100 move from one person's bank account to another. They won't be able to see the blockchain on the other side of that. So how do you stop that?" Turrall said. "This is a genuinely distributed infrastructure."
In some cases, banks themselves have pulled an exchange's account after it was found not to have a money services businesses license. Turrall argued that a P2P exchange would solve that problem.
"You'd have to yank the thousands of small accounts for small-dollar transactions from thousands of users, which you'd have to spot," he said.
Eli Dourado, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a market economics think tank at George Mason University, studies the effect of cryptocurrencies. He is in favor of a P2P exchange.
"I think that the trend is towards decentralization, and I think especially if there's a regulatory crackdown, which seems to be on its way, that idea of being totally decentralized will be attractive to a lot of people," Dourado said.
MetaLair isn't aiming to just hack policy problems with its P2P exchange, however; it wants to avoid a technical one: double spending.
Double spending is a theoretical problem in which currency can be spent twice. In theory, a malicious party could refute a cryptocurrency transaction, and spend currency twice. This becomes particularly problematic if one entity should gain control of over half of the transaction processing power (hashing power) on the Bitcoin network ... because that party could then claim with more authenticity that its transaction records are authentic.
"Our system guarantees that you can't have a double-spending attack within the window of confirmation that you guarantee," Turrall said.
Turrall isn't giving much away about the technology behind the system, as MetaLair is still hoping to attract £200,000 in funding, either through donations or investment. He'll have to unveil details at some point, though, because he says the firm will open-source everything, creating a free client available for download.
If that's the case, how will Turrall and MetaLair make any money?
"Alongside the distributed infrastructure exchange that we're building, we'll provide our own proprietary software that will add benefit," Turrall said. This is how he's offering benefit to investors: "It will be free to use, but you will have a company with an enormous, multi-million-user base."
That would be a captive audience indeed.
So, there will be two clients: one that tech-savvy users will compile themselves, and the other, packaged for a less technical, broader audience. That will be where the firm makes its revenue, rather than on commissions from network trades.
"We will also add our own security and encryption stuff into that (client), which will provide added security to your coins," Turrall added.
The company's web site, MetaLair.org, will be active by the weekend, Turrall said.