Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Where's our anonymous electronic money?

First, Congress banned the use of credit cards "and other payment forms" to settle Internet wagers. Now the San Francisco Chronicle wants to impose a similar ban on the use of credit cards to make purchases from online pharmacies. Not content to simply forbid people to purchase products or pursue vices of which they disapprove, the nation's all-too-full ranks of control freaks also want to deny folks who don't toe the line the ability to pay unapproved bills. Credit cards and other payment systems, once seen as a potential route to financial flexibility, have become tools of political control.

There are alternative means of payment, but these have proven vulnerable to government pressure. PayPal, which began with an explicitly antigovernment agenda, folded rather early, and now bans a variety of politically incorrect transactions. NETeller, even though it's based outside the country, followed suit after two of its executives were essentially kidnapped and held hostage while in the U.S. Some other payment systems remain available, but nothing has established itself as invulnerable, or even highly resistant, to government arm-twisting.

Where is this brave new world of anonymous and untraceable transactions we were promised?

Digital cash that would flow as freely as coins and paper has been "just around the corner" for years. Cryptographer David Chaum was an early pioneer of the idea, although the company he founded, DigiCash, folded a decade ago. The idea seems to be feasible -- at least, experts like Chaum believe it is -- but it hasn't quite caught fire yet. People have proven more open to adapting payment systems they know -- such as credit cards -- to a new environment than they are to adopting something as completely new as money represented by encrypted bits of data.

But as governments choke off the use of traditional payment means and make familiar Visa and Mastercard accounts into extensions of the political whims of whatever crop of nannies currently holds office, they may inadvertently open the door for high-tech money that, until now, has seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Out of necessity, gamblers, pharmacy customers and other patrons of disapproved businesses may soon look for high-tech payment systems that can offer them reliability and privacy in an overgoverned world.

The overwheening nannies of Congress and the editorial pages may yet turn a gee-whiz technological promise into a practical reality.

Well, I'm hoping so, anyway. Any of you technological whizzes out there know how close anonymous, safe and reliable electronic money currently is to being a real-world deliverable service?

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March 19, 2009 12:49 AM  

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