The Winkelvosses’ Bitcoin Scheme

In one memorable scene of The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg and then-co-worker Sean Parker discuss the low moments in their lives that motivated them to succeed in the tech world. Today, Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss, who experienced a low moment of their own when Zuckerberg’s Facebook outdid their efforts to create an online social network, are laying claim to a comeback tale of their own in the form of bitcoin, a controversial digital currency. 

Despite large strides in the currency’s regulation and stability, the odds are stacked against bitcoin achieving the kind of success the twins predict. 

In a series of articles written over the last two years, I have chronicled bitcoin’s controversial ride to notoriety and the many people it has affected along the way. Bitcoin, a digital currency harvested by complex computer algorithms known as the “blockchain,” is essentially anonymous and, until recently, was not government-issued or regulated. 

Entrepreneurs correctly recognized that the lack of regulation meant lower transaction costs, which stoked significant interest in bitcoin. But they did not always pay attention to the downsides. The absence of regulation bred extreme market volatility, and structural flaws in the algorithms exposed the entire bitcoin market to constant risk of loss.

At one point the largest bitcoin exchange in existence, Mt. Gox, collapsed. I reported that it was not uncommon during this time to find rumors of suicide swirling around the mysterious deaths of major bitcoin investors. 

Two years later, the price of bitcoin has stabilized and the Winkelvoss twins are leading the charge in a new direction: attracting large bitcoin investors. 

To that end, the twins have cleared significant obstacles away. On October 5th, the twins received a “limited liability trust charter” for one of their bitcoin exchanges, called “Gemini.” With the charter, Gemini will provide customers the ability to buy, sell, and hold bitcoins just like any other currency. 

If it succeeds, they say, Gemini will be like the Nasdaq of bitcoin. The charter requires the exchange to keep as much reserve capital and abide by the same regulatory strictures as any other major bank, a big facelift for bitcoin’s respectability. 

The bigger story, however, has been the twins’ own prominent role within the emerging bitcoin movement. They have tapped elite security experts from large companies like Microsoft and Airbnb to stabilize their exchanges, recently valuing the bitcoin market at one trillion dollars. In 2013, they claimed to own 1% of all bitcoins in existence.

But a closer analysis reveals they may have trouble “pulling a Facebook.” Bitcoin’s primary appeal in the past has been its deregulation and anonymity, with some small exceptions. So while the twins’ bid to attract serious investors by upgrading security and seeking regulatory oversight may increase the currency’s reliability, it will come at the cost of the freedom that made bitcoin interesting in the first place.

Other digital currencies have failed at the doorstep of regulation. Plus, most of the excitement among tech-savvy investors has been about the “blockchain” technology used to create bitcoins, not bitcoin itself.

Adding to concerns about the twins’ chances for success is that their $1.5 million investment in a bitcoin exchange went sour when its CEO, Charlie Shrem, was arrested in January of 2014 in connection with illicit online drug exchanges. Who would want to invest in a currency whose real appeal lies in its technology and not its financial application, and employ criminals to do it?

Maybe people who have something to prove, both to the world and to Zuckerberg. 

Speculation—and I emphasize that this is speculation—about the twins’ motivation for heavy and early bitcoin investing can only reveal so much. The facts, on the other hand, are clear. First: much of bitcoin’s success will depend on the effects of increased regulation and the success of the twins’ efforts to market bitcoin as a stable, gold-like asset. Second: chances are slim that these facts translate into the Winklevosses’ version of reality.