Mt Gox: The brief reign of bitcoin's top exchange

Fri Feb 28, 2014 11:14am EST
 
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By Brett Wolf and Emily Flitter

(Reuters) - The collapse of Mt. Gox might appear sudden, but bitcoin insiders say its downfall began nearly a year ago as the virtual currency exchange tangled with regulators, split from former business partners and grappled with cyber attacks.

Mt. Gox's fall lays bare the difficulties the bitcoin community faces as it tries to square its freewheeling, libertarian ideals with the rigorous regulation required in financial services and customers' needs for reliable service.

Once the world's biggest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox on Friday filed for bankruptcy protection, saying it may have lost nearly half a billion dollars worth of the virtual coins due to hacking into its faulty computer system. How it managed to lose so much so quickly is still unclear.

U.S. federal prosecutors have subpoenaed Tokyo-based Mt. Gox - and other bitcoin businesses - to seek information on a recent spate of disruptive cyber attacks that overwhelmed some exchanges and forced them to suspend withdrawals. Mt. Gox never recovered, whereas rivals such as Slovenia-based Bitstamp have since resumed operations.

"The first wave of entrepreneurs were evangelists for the technology, but low on quality," said Nick Shalek, an investor at Ribbit Capital, which has backed bitcoin companies including digital-wallet Coinbase. Now, he said, a more serious group of entrepreneurs is trying to build more serious infrastructure around bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a digital currency that, unlike conventional money, is bought and sold on a peer-to-peer network independent of central control. Its value has soared in the last year, and the total worth of bit coins minted is now about $7 billion.

Mt. Gox's decline, ironically, started just as bitcoin was hitting a new level of notoriety in the broader public. Proponents include prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists who talked up a virtual currency system free of government intervention or control.

THE FACE OF BITCOIN   Continued...

 
Kolin Burges, a self-styled cryptocurrency trader and former software engineer from London, holds a placard to protest against Mt. Gox, in front of the building where the digital marketplace operator was formerly housed in Tokyo February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Toru Hanai