Digital currency (digital money, electronic money or electronic currency) is a type of currency available in digital form (in contrast to physical, such as banknotes and coins). It exhibits properties similar to physical currencies, but can allow for instantaneous transactions and borderless transfer-of-ownership. Examples include virtual currencies, cryptocurrencies, and central bank digital currency. These currencies may be used to buy physical goods and services, but may also be restricted to certain communities such as for use inside an online game.
Digital currency is a money balance recorded electronically on a stored-value card or other devices. Another form of electronic money is network money, allowing the transfer of value on computer networks, particularly the Internet. Electronic money is also a claim on a private bank or other financial institution such as bank deposits.
Digital money can either be centralized, where there is a central point of control over the money supply, or decentralized, where the control over the money supply can come from various sources.
In 1983, a research paper by David Chaum introduced the idea of digital cash. In 1990, he founded DigiCash, an electronic cash company, in Amsterdam to commercialize the ideas in his research. It filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
e-gold was the first widely used Internet money, introduced in 1996, and grew to several million users before the US Government shut it down in 2008. Users of the e-gold mailing list used the term “digital currency” to describe peer to peer payments in various instruments. In 1997, Coca-Cola offered buying from vending machines using mobile payments. PayPal launched its USD-denominated service in 1998. In 2009, bitcoin was launched, which marked the start of decentralized blockchain-based digital currencies with no central server, and no tangible assets held in reserve. Also known as cryptocurrencies, blockchain-based digital currencies proved resistant to attempt by government to regulate them, because there was no central organization or person with the power to turn them off.
Origins of digital currencies date back to the 1990s Dot-com bubble. Another known digital currency service was Liberty Reserve, founded in 2006; it lets users convert dollars or euros to Liberty Reserve Dollars or Euros, and exchange them freely with one another at a 1% fee. Several digital currency operations were reputed to be used for ponzi schemes and money laundering, and were prosecuted by the U.S. government for operating without MSB licenses. Q coins or QQ coins, were used as a type of commodity-based digital currency on Tencent QQ’s messaging platform and emerged in early 2005. Q coins were so effective in China that they were said to have had a destabilizing effect on the Chinese Yuan currency due to speculation. Recent interest in cryptocurrencies has prompted renewed interest in digital currencies, with bitcoin, introduced in 2008, becoming the most widely used and accepted digital currency.
Digital versus virtual currency
According to the European Central Bank’s 2015 “Virtual currency schemes – a further analysis” report, virtual currency is a digital representation of value, not issued by a central bank, credit institution or e-money institution, which, in some circumstances, can be used as an alternative to money.In the previous report of October 2012, the virtual currency was defined as a type of unregulated, digital money, which is issued and usually controlled by its developers, and used and accepted among the members of a specific virtual community.
According to the Bank for International Settlements’ November 2015 “Digital currencies” report, it is an asset represented in digital form and having some monetary characteristics. Digital currency can be denominated to a sovereign currency and issued by the issuer responsible to redeem digital money for cash. In that case, digital currency represents electronic money (e-money). Digital currency denominated in its own units of value or with decentralized or automatic issuance will be considered as a virtual currency.
As such, bitcoin is a digital currency but also a type of virtual currency. Bitcoin and its alternatives are based on cryptographic algorithms, so these kinds of virtual currencies are also called cryptocurrencies.
Digital versus traditional currency
Most of the traditional money supply is bank money held on computers. This is also considered digital currency. One could argue that our increasingly cashless society means that all currencies are becoming digital, but they are not presented to us as such.
Types of systems
Main article: Electronic funds transfer
Currency can be exchanged electronically using debit cards and credit cards using electronic funds transfer at point of sale.
Mobile digital wallets
A number of electronic money systems use contactless payment transfer in order to facilitate easy payment and give the payee more confidence in not letting go of their electronic wallet during the transaction.
In 1994 Mondex and National Westminster Bank provided an “electronic purse” to residents of Swindon
In about 2005 Telefónica and BBVA Bank launched a payment system in Spain called Mobipay which used simple short message service facilities of feature phones intended for pay-as-you-go services including taxis and pre-pay phone recharges via a BBVA current bank account debit.
In January 2010, Venmo launched as a mobile payment system through SMS, which transformed into a social app where friends can pay each other for minor expenses like a cup of coffee, rent and pay a share of the restaurant bill when one has forgotten their wallet. It is popular with college students, but has some security issues. It can be linked to a bank account, credit/debit card or have a loaded value to limit the amount of loss in case of a security breach. Credit cards and non-major debit cards incur a 3% processing fee.
On 19 September 2011, Google Wallet released in the United States to make it easy to carry all one’s credit/debit cards on a phone.
In 2012 Ireland’s O2 (owned by Telefónica) launched Easytrip to pay road tolls which were charged to the mobile phone account or prepay credit.
The UK’s O2 invented O2 Wallet at about the same time. The wallet can be charged with regular bank accounts or cards and discharged by participating retailers using a technique known as ‘money messages’. The service closed in 2014.
On 9 September 2014, Apple Pay was announced at the iPhone 6 event. In October 2014 it was released as an update to work on iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. It is very similar to Google Wallet, but for Apple devices only.
Main article: Cryptocurrency
See also: List of cryptocurrencies
A cryptocurrency is a type of digital asset that relies on cryptography for chaining together digital signatures of asset transfers, peer-to-peer networking and decentralization. In some cases a proof-of-work or proof-of-stake scheme is used to create and manage the currency.
Cryptocurrencies allow electronic money systems to be decentralized. The first and most popular system is bitcoin, a peer-to-peer electronic monetary system based on cryptography.
Main article: Virtual currency
A virtual currency has been defined in 2012 by the European Central Bank as “a type of unregulated, digital money, which is issued and usually controlled by its developers, and used and accepted among the members of a specific virtual community”. The US Department of Treasury in 2013 defined it more tersely as “a medium of exchange that operates like a currency in some environments, but does not have all the attributes of real currency”. The key attribute a virtual currency does not have according to these definitions, is the status as legal tender.
Since 2001, the European Union has implemented the E-Money Directive “on the taking up, pursuit and prudential supervision of the business of electronic money institutions” last amended in 2009. Doubts on the real nature of EU electronic money have arisen, since calls have been made in connection with the 2007 EU Payment Services Directive in favor of merging payment institutions and electronic money institutions. Such a merger could mean that electronic money is of the same nature as bank money or scriptural money.
In the United States, electronic money is governed by Article 4A of the Uniform Commercial Code for wholesale transactions and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act for consumer transactions. Provider’s responsibility and consumer’s liability are regulated under Regulation.