The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
Bitcoin's origin story sounds like something out of science fiction: It was launched in 2008 on the heels of a white paper published by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity – and country of origin – are unknown. Nakamoto conceived of Bitcoin as a currency that was 1) encrypted; 2) decentralized, i.e. it was ungoverned and did not belong to any nation; and 3) a digital "distributed ledger," such that everyone can verify online the legitimacy of transactions.
Several news outlets have asserted that the popularity of bitcoins hinges on the ability to use them to purchase illegal goods. Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that bitcoin's anonymity encourages money laundering and other crimes, "If you open up a hole like bitcoin, then all the nefarious activity will go through that hole, and no government can allow that." He's also said that if "you regulate it so you couldn’t engage in money laundering and all these other [crimes], there will be no demand for Bitcoin. By regulating the abuses, you are going to regulate it out of existence. It exists because of the abuses."
According to the Internet Watch Foundation, a UK-based charity, bitcoin is used to purchase child pornography, and almost 200 such websites accept it as payment. Bitcoin isn't the sole way to purchase child pornography online, as Troels Oertling, head of the cybercrime unit at Europol, states, "Ukash and paysafecard... have [also] been used to pay for such material." However, the Internet Watch Foundation lists around 30 sites that exclusively accept bitcoins. Some of these sites have shut down, such as a deep web crowdfunding website that aimed to fund the creation of new child porn.[better source needed] Furthermore, hyperlinks to child porn websites have been added to the blockchain as arbitrary data can be included when a transaction is made.
Each block that is added to the blockchain, starting with the block containing a given transaction, is called a confirmation of that transaction. Ideally, merchants and services that receive payment in bitcoin should wait for at least one confirmation to be distributed over the network, before assuming that the payment was done. The more confirmations that the merchant waits for, the more difficult it is for an attacker to successfully reverse the transaction in a blockchain—unless the attacker controls more than half the total network power, in which case it is called a 51% attack.
Bitcoin has been criticized for the amount of electricity consumed by mining. As of 2015, The Economist estimated that even if all miners used modern facilities, the combined electricity consumption would be 166.7 megawatts (1.46 terawatt-hours per year). At the end of 2017, the global bitcoin mining activity was estimated to consume between one and four gigawatts of electricity. Politico noted that the even high-end estimates of bitcoin's total consumption levels amount to only about 6% of the total power consumed by the global banking sector, and even if bitcoin's consumption levels increased 100 fold from today's levels, bitcoin's consumption would still only amount to about 2% of global power consumption.
Backtracking a bit, let's talk about "nodes." A node is a powerful computer that runs the bitcoin software and helps to keep bitcoin running by participating in the relay of information. Anyone can run a node, you just download the bitcoin software (free) and leave a certain port open (the drawback is that it consumes energy and storage space – the network at time of writing takes up about 145GB). Nodes spread bitcoin transactions around the network. One node will send information to a few nodes that it knows, who will relay the information to nodes that they know, etc. That way it ends up getting around the whole network pretty quickly.
The Bank for International Settlements summarized several criticisms of bitcoin in Chapter V of their 2018 annual report. The criticisms include the lack of stability in bitcoin's price, the high energy consumption, high and variable transactions costs, the poor security and fraud at cryptocurrency exchanges, vulnerability to debasement (from forking), and the influence of miners.
In March 2013 the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with different rules. The two blockchains operated simultaneously for six hours, each with its own version of the transaction history. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software. The Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the price dropped by 23% to $37 before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours. The US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (MSBs), that are subject to registration or other legal obligations. In April, exchanges BitInstant and Mt. Gox experienced processing delays due to insufficient capacity resulting in the bitcoin price dropping from $266 to $76 before returning to $160 within six hours. The bitcoin price rose to $259 on 10 April, but then crashed by 83% to $45 over the next three days. On 15 May 2013, US authorities seized accounts associated with Mt. Gox after discovering it had not registered as a money transmitter with FinCEN in the US. On 23 June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listed 11.02 bitcoins as a seized asset in a United States Department of Justice seizure notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881. This marked the first time a government agency had seized bitcoin. The FBI seized about 26,000 bitcoins in October 2013 from the dark web website Silk Road during the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht. Bitcoin's price rose to $755 on 19 November and crashed by 50% to $378 the same day. On 30 November 2013 the price reached $1,163 before starting a long-term crash, declining by 87% to $152 in January 2015. On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China prohibited Chinese financial institutions from using bitcoins. After the announcement, the value of bitcoins dropped, and Baidu no longer accepted bitcoins for certain services. Buying real-world goods with any virtual currency had been illegal in China since at least 2009.