What the heck is Bitcoin? Congress wants to know, too

The Bitcoin website.

Have trouble understanding Bitcoin? So does Congress. A Senate committee opens an exploration today of how virtual currencies work and how they could contribute to the economy and society -- or do quite the opposite.

Why use a virtual currency? George Peabody, a senior director at Glenbrook Partners, a consulting firm, gives an example: Two suppliers who know each other well could benefit from a payment system like Bitcoin, where they interact with one another directly.

“They could start could sending payments to eachother over what we call Bitcoin rails, that’s a payment rail," he says, "which could be a great deal less expensive than going to their bank and wiring funds.”

Bitcoin cuts out the middle man. That’s one of the things Congress is concerned about -- if there’s no bank, there’s a potentially greater chance of money laundering or other unsavory activity. There could be more mundane headaches for consumers, too.

“You and I can dispute a transaction and charge it back to a merchant and get it taken off of our credit card bill," Peabody says. "That won’t exist in Bitcoin.”

Still, Peabody says, Bitcoin is a worthy experiment, one that needs time to evolve before regulators clamp down.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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