Big banks can't be allowed to hijack blockchain and digital currencies

Dan Andersson
Chaos Computer Club Annual Congress
Blockchain and digital currencies are leaving the tech sphere and becoming increasingly more mainstream (Source: Getty)

Digital currency and the technology that underpins it, blockchain, are still so young that nobody has worked out what they're really for yet.

In this world of cutting-edge technology and pioneering disruption, we must make sure big banks and financial institutions don't try and force this new technology into old models.

Last week, major financial intuitions comprising of UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander and Bank of New York Mellon announced their intervention into the digital currency market.

They want to create their own private form of tender for transacting between each other to pay for securities and settle trades without having to wait for settlement and reconciliation. This would speed up the movement of money between them and create efficiencies by reducing administration costs.

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We should be pleased to see the financial world wake up to the value of digital currency, the most famous of which is of course bitcoin.

It is no longer being treated it as a financial outlier, reserved for just IT and technology experts.

This narrow-minded take has, at least until recently, missed the technology’s potential to link up businesses and entrepreneurs on a global scale.

But we should also welcome the big banks' intervention in this space with a healthy dose of caution and scepticism.

Almost all major institutions have a tendency towards centralisation and control and they also have a vested interest in the status quo supported by gradual improvements, which could crowding out disruptive ideas and limiting the potential of this revolution.

Read more: London tech startup and Visa partner on blockchain - and want banks' help

In the pharmaceutical industry, the tech sector, the energy sector and many others, larger established players often seek to buy up smaller disrupters or create new barriers to entry to stop that disruption ever reaching the marketplace.

It's not unreasonable, then, to expect the big banks to bring similar tactics to the blockchain revolution.

The movement behind digital currencies and blockchain ledgers is about decentralisation and disruption –things that incumbents often try to smother.

Large financial institutions haven’t got a great track record of adapting to rapid change, let alone leading the charge to an exciting new future that may make them irrelevant. Take the panic that surrounded the idea of chip-and-pin and contactless payments, which still have limited adoption in the USA.

Read more: The UK now has its first official blockchain provider for public services

Their involvement is additionally intriguing because blockchain technology has been regularly cited by many of us in the field as one of the biggest threats to the financial status quo.

The reason why blockchain could be a threat is because, if used properly, it gets around the middleman; and what are banks if not middlemen.

Banks have dined out for centuries on being a reliable secure connection for our money. Take that away from them and make it an instant automated process and, one major justification for their existence disappears.

Let's just hope they don't take the technology, which could transform some areas of finance, and make it just another version of what they already have.

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