With a recent surge in so-called decentralized cryptocurrency exchange platforms, peer-to-peer (P2P) exchange platform Bisq appears to be one of the very few to attempt serious decentralization.
Once the favored method of exchange, P2P volume has fallen over the years but with increasing privacy and security challenges on centralized exchanges, some like Bisq see a revival in the concept of direct exchange via P2P.
Felix Moreno is one of just a few individuals who work on the decentralized P2P exchange platform Bisq openly. Most people working on it volunteer their services anonymously and for free. Why? Because, as Moreno told Bitcoin News, it is the ”holy grail” of decentralized cryptocurrency exchanges.
Bitcoin News caught up with Moreno to discuss the logistics of running a nearly entirely decentralized exchange, why they will have to fight tooth and nail to keep it that way, and why know-your-customer (KYC) regulations are really just a way for the government to get into your pockets.
He has been in the Bitcoin world for a long time, suffered through the Mt Gox fiasco and various hacks and scams before, and now wants to do his part in minimizing these experiences for others.
”What do we need that can make exchanging as decentralized as the Bitcoin network itself? This is the closest we have gotten to that ideal,” he said. This is one of the most interesting projects Moreno says he has worked on, both making him understand what makes Bitcoin special and what potential decentralization can unlock, Moreno explains his belief that Bisq’s founders really try and live up to this standard.
A return to private exchanges between crypto users
Bisq founder Manfred Karrer shared these comments about the platform: ”To enable a privacy protecting exchange between fiat currencies and Bitcoin, it is crucial to keep your Bitcoin untainted. Protection of privacy is here directly related to security. There is a long list of hacks of centralized Bitcoin exchanges. In such events, your personal financial data including your residency address can end up in the hand of hackers and criminals. The only protection is to not store user data.”
The Bisq project is open source, operating entirely with the help of informal collaborators besides the founders. There was no initial coin offering held to raise funds; the few who helped contribute the minimal funds pre-launch did not do so expecting to see their money again. The mission getting these people so excited is an ambition to create a platform like BitTorrent but instead of offering music, offering a cryptocurrency exchange for all coins, between people and users instead of companies and banks.
Right now, you can buy and sell Bitcoin and altcoins using dozens of fiat currencies but with more users, this could potentially become hundreds. The platform uses multi-signature transactions on Bitcoin smart contracts to block in escrow the Bitcoins that people use as a security deposit, so there is a mutually assured destruction for both partners in the trade if they don’t complete it correctly.
The privacy measures do not much change the process of using the platform, Moreno detailed: ”There is a local wallet in your computer under your control so there is no way that runners of the project can access it. You can fund the wallet at the moment you want to make the trade by just scanning the QR code and depositing funds straight away.”
Bisq Founder Manfred Karrer
In terms of decentralization, what makes Bisq so different from other exchanges?
Bisq does not require you to have an account or share your information with a third-party company. Your information is stored locally in the Bisq Client, an application that you need to download onto your computer, and only the minimum of this is shared with the trade counterpart and nobody else. For example, if you are trading with fiat, your bank details will be shared. A Bitcoin-Monero trade, on the other hand, will not even share your name with the trading partner, only your wallet address.
”There is no way we could turn into a KYC financial surveillance company because there is no company, there is no one the SEC can send a subpoena to. There is no one in charge,” Moreno explained.
Privacy is crucial for them. Moreno outlined the main issue with centralized businesses: ”Big companies leak large amounts of user data every week, and the ones who are not leaking are the worst offenders, accumulating social media and search engine data to sell to advertisers in the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is something from (the book) 1984.’
Privacy, he added, is especially important with finances due to the risks of theft, fraud, and rich Bitcoin traders that could become susceptible to phishing scams if their data is shared. He also recognized that there are different degrees of decentralization with Coinbase at one end, Hodl Hodl somewhere in the middle, and then Bisq.
”Ideally, Bisq is so successful that it will be copied by a lot of people and because it is open source code this will be easy. I’m fine with that, that’s the spirit of open source,” he explained.
A dying kind
Moreno pointed out that even companies that have tried to offer decentralized platforms, such as Shapeshift, reach a certain level of success and then have to ”ignore the ‘no account needed’ hashtag”. They may not want to impose KYC, he said in the case of Shapeshift: ”I know Eric (Shapeshift CEO), he’s a great guy, really believes in privacy. But once you run a company with dozens of employees and investors you cannot take the legal risk. Shapeshift is incorporated in Switzerland so technically the SEC doesn’t have anything to say about it in theory, but in practice, the long reach of American regulators extends at least over half the world if not more… I don’t think he has a choice.”
Bisq Co-Founder Chris Beams
It is not perfect
There are risks to this level of decentralization and the platform itself is not perfect. For one, it exposes Bisq to scammers that in some other places can be stopped with an identity check, but it uses a set of incentives and smart contracts to minimize this risk. Moreno says he has used nearly every trading platform there is and has realized it is much more detrimental to scammers to have a security deposit there to lose than to ask for identification. Bisq has a double security deposit, which when trade is completed, both parties recover but if there are any issues they can lose their money.
One aspect that people may also not like is the fact you have to download a program to run on your computer.
”That’s like early 2000s, who does that anymore?” Moreno joked, clearly aware that this is a problem for some people. It is, however, the only way to exchange completely securely and to let people really have control of their own node, he said.
Some people might also not enjoy the fact that because they are completely in control of their own funds as any mistake is on the user: ”It’s like in the early days of Bitcoin when you send funds to the wrong address – you’re screwed. But that’s your responsibility and some people don’t want that.”
And then there is the issue of speed. You can not simply buy with one click when making a market order as you can on some centralized platforms; the multi-signature which is on the Bitcoin blockchain requires at least 10 minutes for confirmation. Then the speed depends on your payment network; some ways such as through a Revolut account will be quick, but international bank transfers can sometimes take five days or more.
Fighting to stay online, and why regulations are really there
While Bisq may avoid most regulations because of its decentralized structure, the path ahead for them is not easy: ”Bisq is going to have a very hard time surviving the way it is doing things… We will have to fight like hell and use every technological advantage to keep it up.”
If there is a company behind it, Moreno says, every exchange will get a call from local regulators who want first: full KYC and the source of funds for counterterrorism measures especially over certain amounts, and secondly: automatic data sharing like banks already have with tax authorities so they can ”go on phishing expeditions to see who isn’t declaring all their Bitcoin income or whatever”.
Moreno continued, ”KYC is not there out of the goodness of their hearts; it’s a slippery slope towards first identifying you, then getting money out of you. If tax authority lobbyists win, they will allow crypto activities to continue but they will be taxed and if financial industry lobbyists win, they will exclude competition so only big financial companies can run exchanges with proper licenses.”
So is industry self-regulation the way forward? Well, Moreno thinks it could work.
He explained that now, more than ever, there is the opportunity to do it well by using smart contracts and setting up things such as automatic penalties for people who break the rules. ”That can get us very very far, much farther than all the preventative KYC regs”, he said, adding that reputation networks too have always worked because people care a lot about return trade.
”If people are completely anonymous, it’s very easy to have a selfish attitude, but if it’s someone you have some sort of relationship with, it’s only the psychopaths that are going to give that up for a short-term gain,” Moreno remarked.
Bisq Co-Founder Christoph Atteneder
Set the date: 20th September
Right now, trading volumes are comparatively very small: ”Bisq is at 183 on Coincap, it’s tiny.”
For euros and dollars, trading is decent but for some other currencies such as the Argentinian peso, there is hardly anyone on the platform offering pairs. ”Argentina really needs it but again, most people will not do the work of finding decentralized exchanges until they suffer a hack or find their account frozen,” Moreno noted.
To try and encourage traders, Moreno has planned a kick start virtual event on 20 September 2018. He is asking everybody who is interested to go on Bisq and place an ad.
”If you don’t want to trade just say ‘I’m here, I’m interested and when the time comes to buy and sell I will be here,’ especially for lesser used currencies. If we can get 4/5 people for these currencies, other people can see there are people trading around them.”
It may not be the fastest platform, the most accessible or provide some of the assurances that KYC compliant exchanges do, but as Moreno believes, ”Right now, Bisq is the best we have got by far.”
To find out more about Bisq, or to contribute to the platform, join the Slack or follow them on Twitter.
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Image Courtesy: Bisq