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Uncertainty Dominates as China Continues to Clamp Down on Cryptocurrencies

September 19, 2017 Aaron van Wirdum 0

Uncertainty Dominates as China Clamps Down on Cryptocurrency

China is clamping down on cryptocurrency, that much is clear. But while the developing story dominates headlines, a notable trend is the lack of official information. Chinese officials seem to systematically decline requests for comments, local sources are willing to provide information on condition of anonymity only, while leaked documents remain unverified.

Despite this lack of clarity, here’s what’s known so far.

Effects on Trading

The most important thing we know for sure is that Chinese bitcoin exchanges will be closing down, or at least exiting China.

BTCC — the oldest bitcoin exchange in the world — was the first exchange to announce they’d be closing shop within the Asian country, by the end of this month. The exchange cited guidelines published by the Chinese central bank (the People’s Bank of China; PBOC), which initially appeared to only affect ICOs, as its reason for closing down.

Other exchanges quickly followed BTCC’s lead. ViaBTC and Yunbi both announced that they’d be ceasing operations by the end of this month. Huobi and OKCoin, the two other major Chinese exchanges, announced they would be shutting down too, though not until the end of October. And BitKan, a big over-the-counter (OTC) trading service rather than an order-book exchange, announced it would be shutting down as well.

While the cited guidelines initially did not seem to concern bitcoin, it is likely that Chinese officials have made it clear through separate channels that they do apply to the cryptocurrency. Bloomberg (among others) reports that exchange operators decided to close down after in-person meetings with PBOC officials, and the Wall Street Journal reports — based on anonymous sources — that the PBOC has prepared a set of “draft instructions” that would ban cryptocurrency trading altogether. These draft instructions have also been leaked (translation) but have so far not been verified for authenticity.

The content of the leaked documents is also consistent with warnings issued by a Chinese quasi-regulatory body — the National Internet Finance Association of China (NIFA) — regarding cryptocurrency trading, published shortly before exchanges announced that they would be shutting down.

According to the NIFA, Bitcoin exchanges lack “legal basis” to operate in the country. Additionally, NIFA official Li Lihui told a technology conference in Shanghai on Friday that a goal of China’s monetary regulation is to ensure that “the source and destination of every piece of money can be tracked.”

The Status of Bitcoin

As far as official statements go, Bitcoin itself is not banned in China. Owning, using, and — most importantly — mining bitcoin should technically not be affected by the published guidelines.

However, more unverified reports (translation) consistent with reporting from the Wall Street Journal, claim that Bitcoin itself will be blocked by the so-called “great firewall of China.” Specifically, seed addresses, which help to bootstrap any new Bitcoin node, and Bitcoin blocks, necessary to construct the blockchain, would be filtered from internet traffic into China, using deep packet inspection.

Additionally, major foreign Bitcoin exchanges like Coinbase, Bitfinex and LocalBitcoins would be added to the list of banned domains, which already includes sites like Google and Facebook. And even private trading of cryptocurrency arranged through chat-apps like Telegram and WeChat, for example, could fall under scrutiny, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This much stricter stance on Bitcoin, beyond just exchanges but also concerning Bitcoin itself, seem consistent with comments from PBOC Counselor Sheng Songcheng, as reported by local news sources like Shanghai Securities News. Songcheng was quoted to have said that Bitcoin poses a challenge to China, mentioning money laundering and its potential to curb the nation’s economic policy.

Furthermore, very recent reports indicate that cryptocurrency exchange operators are currently not allowed to leave Beijing. Local news outlet BJ News writes:

“[According to] a number of informed sources, the current special currency trading platform executives and so on are not allowed to leave Beijing, [in order] to cooperate with the investigation. In accordance with regulatory requirements, the trading platform shareholders, the actual controller, executives, financial executives [must] fully cooperate with the relevant work in the clean-up period in Beijing.” (Rough translation.)

What This Means…

Trading bitcoin via dedicated exchange platforms in China is off the table for now — that is clear.

But it’s not yet clear how successful a full Chinese Bitcoin blockade could be. It would technically only require a single Bitcoin block of a maximum of four megabytes to make it into China about once every 10 minutes, potentially even through satellite, for the entire country to be able to access the blockchain. As such, banning individual Chinese citizens from owning and using bitcoin might prove difficult, even if exchange platforms close down.

Perhaps an even more important question is what will happen to Bitcoin mining: It’s likely that most of Bitcoin’s hash power is currently situated in the Asian country. While miners should able to connect to the rest of the world, according to ViaBTC CEO Haipo Yang, it’s unclear if this connection will be allowed for much longer. If Chinese authorities indeed intend to ban Bitcoin from the country entirely, Bitcoin mining operations — both mining pools and hash power data centers — will be easy targets to shut down.

On the other hand, this is not the first time that fears of China “banning Bitcoin” have been raised. In the past, such concerns have simply been a prelude to stricter regulations by local authorities.

It has been suggested by Bitmain CEO Jihan Wu, perhaps a bit optimistically, that exchanges will simply require a new license to continue operation. Similarly, it’s been speculated that the PBOC may introduce a national digital currency as a sort of gateway to cryptocurrency: This would allow the central bank to better track the flow of funds in and out of bitcoin in order to counter money laundering and capital flight.

Then again, it could make more sense to introduce such a national digital currency as a substitute for Bitcoin, once Bitcoin is effectively banned, as suggested by ZeroHedge.

For now, uncertainty prevails.

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Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 Is Released: Here’s What’s New

September 14, 2017 Aaron van Wirdum 0

Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 Released: Here’s What’s New

Today marks the official release of Bitcoin Core 0.15.0, the fifteenth generation of Bitcoin’s original software client launched by Satoshi Nakamoto almost nine years ago. Overseen by Bitcoin Core lead maintainer Wladimir van der Laan, this latest major release was developed by nearly 100 contributors over a six-month period, with major contributions through Chaincode Labs, Blockstream and MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative.

Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 offers significant performance and usability improvements over previous versions of the software implementation. It also introduces several new features to better deal with the current status of the network.

These are some of the more notable changes.

Chainstate Database Restructure

One of the biggest changes compared to previous versions of the software involves how the state of Bitcoin’s blockchain is stored. This “chainstate” or “UTXO-set” is saved in a dedicated database, whereas previously it had been categorized per transaction. If one transaction sent bitcoins to several outputs (“addresses”), these different outputs were stored as a single database entry, referring to that one transaction.

With Bitcoin Core 0.15.0, these outputs are instead stored in a single database entry each. If a single transaction sends bitcoins to different outputs, every output is stored separately. While this method does claim more disc space, it requires less computational resources if one of these outputs is spent later on.

The most concrete benefit of this new data structure is that initial sync-time for new nodes is decreased by about 40 percent. It also introduces simpler code, reduces memory usage  and more. Additionally, it fixes a bug that could theoretically crash Bitcoin Core nodes, controversially revealed at last weekend’s Breaking Bitcoin conference in Paris.

Improved Fee Estimation

As Bitcoin blocks have been filling up over the last year or two, not all transactions fit in the first block that is mined. Instead, miners typically prioritize the transactions that include the most fees. If a user wants to have his transaction confirmed quickly, he should include a high enough fee. If he’s not in a rush, a lower fee should suffice.

However, the Bitcoin network deals with inherent unpredictability in terms of the speed at which blocks are found or the number of transactions that is being transmitted at any time. This makes it hard to include the right transaction fee.

Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 lowers this fee uncertainty: The newest version of the software includes significantly better fee estimation algorithms. This is mostly because the software takes more data into account when making the estimations, such as the fees included in older confirmed transactions, as well as fees in unconfirmed transactions — the fees that proved insufficient.

Additionally, users can enjoy more flexibility. For one, Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 for the first time allows users to include fees that could take their transactions up to a week to confirm. And, also newly introduced, users can choose to accept more or less risk that their transaction could be delayed due to a sudden influx of transactions.

Replace-by-fee in User Interface

Even with improved fee estimation, it is possible that users will still need to wait longer than they want for their transactions to confirm, perhaps because there is a sudden rush of transactions on the network, or maybe because a user changed his mind and prefers to have a transaction confirm faster than originally paid for, or for other reasons.

For these cases, some wallets let users add a “replace-by-fee” tag to their transactions. With such a tag, nodes and miners on the network know that the sender may want to replace that transaction with a newer transaction that includes a higher fee. This effectively allows users to bump the transaction in line to have it confirmed faster.

Bitcoin Core nodes have supported replace-by-fee for well over a year now: They already replace “replace-by-fee” tagged transactions if the new transaction includes more fees. But it was never easy to utilize for Bitcoin Core wallet users themselves.

Until now.

The Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 wallet introduces a replace-by-fee toggle in its user interface. This lets users include the appropriate tag, allowing them to easily increase the fees on their transactions later on.

Multi-wallet Support (Client and RPC Only)

Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 lets users create several wallets for the first time. These wallets all have their own separate Bitcoin addresses, private keys and, therefore, funds. Users can utilize the different wallets for different purposes; for example, one wallet can be used for personal day-to-day purchases, another for business-related transactions, and a third just for trading.

Using several wallets can offer a number of benefits. For instance, it makes accounting easier and more convenient. Additionally, users can more easily benefit from increased privacy as the different wallets cannot be linked to each other by blockchain analysis. It’s also possible to use different wallets for specific applications and more.

For now, multi-wallet support is not yet available for regular wallet users; only advanced users who operate from the command line or through connected applications can utilize the feature.

Other Improvements

Apart from the above mentioned notable changes, Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 includes a number of additional performance improvements, as most new major Bitcoin Core releases do. Concretely, these changes speed up how quickly blocks are downloaded from the network, they let nodes start up faster, and up-to-date nodes will be able to validate new blocks more quickly, in turn benefiting network-propagation time.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Bitcoin Core 0.15.0 will disconnect from BTC1 peers on the network. This means that the Bitcoin network will experience less disruption if the SegWit2x hard fork splits the network, as both types of nodes will more easily find compatible peers. While this change has gotten some media attention,c this hange shouldn’t really be noticeable.

Thanks to Chaincode Labs developer John Newbery for feedback and suggestions. For more details on what’s new in Bitcoin Core 0.15.0, see the release notes, or watch Bitcoin Core contributor Gregory Maxwell’s “deep dive” presentation at the San Francisco Bitcoin developers meetup.

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