It’s all in the code – report from the Dutch National Bitcoin Congress

Two important Bitcoin events took place last week in Amsterdam.

One of them was the Bitcoin 2014 international conference that took place from Thursday 15th to Saturday 17th of May (report on this will follow soon on the MoneyLab blog).

The other one was the Dutch National Bitcoin Congres held at the Dialogues House (ABN AMRO) on Wednesday, 14th of May. Jolien Siemerink attended the congress and wrote a detailed report of how it went.

Jolien Siemerink holds an MA in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and currently works for iBrokers Travels. She attended the congress with a professional interest – as her company recently started accepting Bitcoins as payment – as well as a personal interest – to hear what Bitcoin is all about from different speakers.

Below is her report of the event:

” It’s all in the code – report from the Dutch National Bitcoin Congres

I started the day as what veteran Internet users would call a Newbie. Even though I am well educated in new media and digital cultures and, of course, on a personal level very experienced in online shopping, I have never bought anything with Bitcoins. For one simple reason, I don’t own any. I’ve never had the urge to get into the whole Bitcoin phenomenon. Mostly because I thought it would blow over. Was I that wrong? I am usually right when it comes to predicting trends. But as I learned during the National Bitcoin Congress, I might have missed it because I am a woman and Bitcoins are just beyond my interests. At least that is what research from Maurice de Hond showed – 0% of women in The Netherlands have used Bitcoins! Or was it because I use iOS, and Apple has set out to make Bitcoins difficult to use by not letting crypto wallets into the App Store?

Luckily, I got an invitation from Rutger van Zuidam, Ecommerce entrepreneur and Bitcoin specialist, to attend the Dutch National Bitcoin Congress that he organized in cooperation with Vincent Everts, on Thursday, May 15th at the Dialogues House in Amsterdam. To top that off, he arranged a meeting for me with Moe Levin, Director of European Business Development at Bitpay, on Wednesday beforehand. I wanted to see how we (iBrokers Travels, my employer) could integrate Bitcoins by use of Bitpay invoices for our villas, chalets and yachts around the world. The easiness of the Bitpay system got me even more curious. If it is that easy, why was I not using this myself? How is it that not all Dutch companies are already integrating this feature into their payment systems? I tackled these questions at the congress.

ABN Amro, one of the Netherlands major banks offered their Dialogues House to be the stage of presentations and discussions around this new payment system. A payment system that perhaps has the potential to change banking as we know it.

A man in a green suit, who turned out to be Vincent Everts himself, was running around in the (quite young) audience. The crowd on its own was an interesting site to see. These were the men who are today’s big spenders, questioning society out loud and offering Bitcoin as the tool for the next revolution. More to the back, other men were pacing, lost in silenced mumbling and practicing their speeches. This National Bitcoin Congress promised to be something big.

Everts and van Zuidam introduced the first speaker, Prof.dr. P. (Paul) Iske, Chief Dialogue Officer at ABN AMRO. He explained the location, and the enthusiasm of the ABN Amro as a next generation bank to be on top of social innovation. Iske gave the perfect example with the Binocular View artwork from Markus Raetz. Reatz created images that are intended to be completed inside the viewers’ own head. First you will see the word ‘No’ but when you walk around the art piece the word ‘Yes’ appears. Iske gave this example as a metaphor for the current Bitcoin situation. He suggested it would be best to take a step as a next generation bank and take a good look at Bitcoin to see if ‘No’ can in fact become ‘Yes’.

But what do people living in the Netherlands think of Bitcoins right now? ‘Yes’ or ‘No’? Van Zuidam and Everts asked Maurice de Hond, well known for his research and polls, to see what the popular opinion is in the Netherlands on Bitcoins. In their press release* it states that:

“A whopping 70% of the population has heard of Bitcoin, and 10% were familiar with places you can use Bitcoin as payment. Only 2% of men and 0% of women have actually used Bitcoins. 5% of men would like to use it in the near future, but women are showing no interest. 53% of people have a negative impression of Bitcoin, but 11% think it is going to be important in the payment system.”

Knowing that a large part of the Dutch population has heard of Bitcoin, regardless of whether their impression is positive of negative, gives an interesting start to the debate at the Dutch National Bitcoin Congress.

Trace Mayer, Entrepreneur and Bitcoin investor, took me back to my college days when he explained how the power of Bitcoin is all in the code. Bitcoin is censorship resistant and unshackled from political whims, he says. In that form, just looking at the code as a way for communication, everything that can be decentralized will be decentralized. Mayer explained that Bitcoin should be compared to revolutions. The industrial revolution was when machines multiplied our muscle power and, stated Mayer; in this day and age it is data that multiplies our minds. The trend of this Dutch National Congress seems to be a comparison to wordily events that led to revolutions.

Tuur Demeester, an economics publicist, used the example of how whale oil became obsolete when we were able to extract petroleum. Demeester stated that, like petroleum, the new contender Bitcoin does not have a history and still needs to prove itself. Yet, like petroleum, crypto currency has raised the bar. Right now consumers ask for control and flexibility, according to Demeester. He explains the easiness of Bitcoin: “people want a bank in their pocket”, just like Steve Jobs showed that we could have 1000 songs in our pocket with the iPod. Demeester ended his Bitcoin talk by looking at the banking system as it currently is. People are going to want predictability, he argues. He sees Bitcoin as an alternative for the next big banking crisis and is happy the Netherlands presents itself as the Silicon Valley of money 2.0.

The maturity of the Netherlands when it comes to its e-commerce space is applauded throughout the congress. The Dutch were early adopters of the search into a currency fitting to this digital age and therefore front runners in accepting the challenge that “we need to rethink our strategy that the Internet will go away” (a quote from the famous New Yorker Cartoon by Tom Toro).

The appeal that Bitcoins have on the mainstream audience was put to test by the next speaker. Mike Hearn, who left Google to be become an entrepreneur and who is a Bitcoin Core Developer, sees Bitcoin-related possibilities having more of a niche appeal. Because the code is transparent and can be applied to multiple causes, it is interesting to see what niches can be filled. Hearn gave the example of people who did not want their money handled by the current banking institutions. He compared Bitcoins, a revolutionary idea, to the development of Linux 2000 when “everybody” was over the moon about the innovation and possibilities of this system. It failed miserably in the eyes of Hearn. Given that Hearn actually writes the Bitcoin code and also sees the possibilities in using Bitcoins, I find his remark on how Bitcoin is currently more appealing to niche groups rather than to the mainstream audience to be liberating. He was the first speaker to emphasize the niche appeal and how we should not just embrace Bitcoins but accept that it might take a while longer to catch on. Even so, there is still the option that Bitcoin might fail like Linux 2000 once did.

There I was, sitting in the Bitcoin-savvy audience with my first own Bitcoins burning on my chest on a beautiful Bitcoin value card I received when I entered the congress, and no phone crypto wallet to put it in. That’s because I, and a large percentage of smartphone users like me, have an iPhone. For the first time (as an Apple enthusiast) I found a glitch (not being able to use crypto wallets), which, in this crowd, made me, feel like I was from an ancient era. Also I felt a great guilt for not being able to send the Bitcoins to giro 999 in support of Stichting Vluchteling during the break. Stichting Vluchteling is the first Dutch foundation to accept Bitcoins and was therefore invited by van Zuidam and Everts to promote their cause during the Dutch National Bitcoin Congress.

So maybe Bitcoins where really just for the niche audience as explained by Hearn. Policy Officer on innovations and cyber security for De Nederlandsche Bank, Kim Gunnink, explained that before we can take Bitcoin out of its niche and into the main public wallet, we need to regulate it. We need to find its flaws, and secure it against cyber criminals before the Dutch National Bank will give guarantee for its value as they do with for example the Euro and the dollar.

Frank Schuil, the CEO at Safello Sweden, offers a solution to this problem. He wants to make Safello the bank of the future. He carefully explained that Safello should not be seen as a border exchange office but as a new bank. The bank of the future, the social network of money. This new banking form that Bitcoin offers was also appealing to Marc van der Chijs, Managing Partner at Cross Pacific Capital. He explained this appeal by a personal example of Cyprus. He just could not get his head around the fact that he was not allowed to withdraw his own money from his bank in Cyprus, at an institution he pays for to hold his money. This is what made him look at Bitcoins and this is also the reason why he is now investing in Bitcoins and other forms of crypto currency.

The lack or need for banks is also what could make Bitcoin interesting for third world countries. As normal as it is for us to have a bank account, this is not a wordily given right. In some countries bank accounts are expensive and in other counties they might be corrupt or non existing. What if we can use Bitcoins to help third world countries to a solid currency without the hassle of banking? Van der Chijs noticed that during a conference he attended in New York there was a new crowd, much like the Dutch crowd who were interested in these options that crypto currency offer. But for this to happen in the USA we, again, come back to the fact that there needs to be more regulation.

These regulations might come, according to former Minister of Finance of the Netherlands, Jan Kees de Jager. Bitcoin sees similar skepticism as the Euro at first. However, the European Union had trust. There was a political will, a commitment, and a belief that the Euro needed to work. De Jager believes that this is partly the reason why the Euro still works.

The fact that I myself was at a Bitcoin conference that discussed how we can incorporate a new crypto currency into the Dutch companies is a large step forward and shows belief in the role that developers and entrepreneurs alike have in the next revolution and maybe a bank of the future. There is no necessity for Bitcoins in the Netherlands, but for the sake of a backup system it is good to know what our options are.

When I asked Rutger van Zuidam what he, as the organizer of the National Bitcoin Congress and Bitcoin enthusiast, found of all the arguments and how this affected his opinion, he stated:

“This Congress shows us that the established institutions and businesses really want to learn from the new developments and start-ups in crypto-currency, and vice versa. The constructive discussion that took place was about what is good about what we have now and what is good about new technology like Bitcoin. I expect, for a future convention, that we will see more on the programmability of money and cash flows as well as the many possibilities that this technology offers besides money. The Bitcoin units may represent money, but can also be programmed as shares, insurances or even votes in an electoral system. Bitcoin is an Internet for registrations and transactions of many types of property, so in addition to money, the possibilities are unprecedented. In addition, tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and developers are working on innovative start-ups, from which the results undoubtedly will be discussed in a subsequent conference.”

Bitcoin, much like the Internet, is not going away. That is the conclusion of the pro and con site of the National Bitcoin Congress. Question still remains in what form Bitcoin will be able to get out of its niche and into the regulated wallets of the main public.

*The research by Maurice de Hond is not for publication, if you have any questions please contact
Rutger van Zuidam or Vincent Everts.”

By: Jolien Siemerink, MA New Media & Digital Culture.