Comment: Governments will struggle to put Bitcoin under lock and key

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By Jonathan Levin, University of Oxford

The hearings in the US senate last week were the most high profile public discussions that have taken place on the subject of virtual currencies.

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The US showed its openness by broadcasting the hearing, and it was watched by many Bitcoin enthusiasts around the world.

The discussion looked at the potential risks and opportunities Bitcoin and other virtual currencies pose for society, without going into any of the technical details. Senators made analogies with previous technologies and offered personal anecdotes, placing Bitcoin among inventions such as the internet and mobile phones.

Positive comments from senators, the judiciary and US financial authorities sent the price soaring to its highest price yet, reaching US$900 at one point. At the start of this year, a single coin cost less than US$15.

 

Bitcoin price and google trends indexed at 100 on 19/11/13. Google Trends, Bitstamp.

 

But the knowledge gap between legislators, law enforcement and Bitcoin developers is still vast. Coalitions of government agencies across borders are beginning to collaborate on addressing the gap. In 2012, the FBI founded the Virtual Currency Emerging Threats Working Group (VCET), which alongside the US department of justice and financial crime agency also collaborates with the UK’s National Crime Agency. However, at times these bodies seem to lack an understanding of the basic principles behind cryptographic currencies.

In coins we don’t trust

Bitcoin was conceived as a currency that did not require any trust between its users. As a result there is no room for a central authority able to resolve disputes and enforce laws.

Our traditional financial system has intermediaries that sit on top of the narrow supply of coins and notes in the economy, creating layers of credit services and other financial products. In these account-based systems, individuals trust these institutions – banks, building societies, pension funds, and so on – to keep their wealth safe. But, it is these same trust lines that also facilitate government tax collection and legal enforcement.

At the moment, Bitcoin’s equivalent financial intermediaries are the exchanges used to move money between digital and government-issued currencies. These centralised services use accounts to store users’ Bitcoin and government currencies and hence can be regulated like other forms of money transmission.

Since Bitcoin cannot be policed as effectively as normal money, most regulatory work is directed at exchanges. Enforcement within a peer-to-peer, distributed network is difficult. Take cash, for example. There is a reason why it is still the medium of exchange favoured by criminals across the world – without a centralised store and written records, it is harder for authorities to keep track. Likewise, in peer-to-peer file sharing networks, download portals and broadband providers are both subject to regulation and have the responsibility to manage content and user behaviour respectively.

If you’re not on the list…

This does not mean enforcement is not possible; there are considerable efforts to ensure self-regulation within the Bitcoin economy. One example is the suggestion that stolen coins should be blacklisted to prevent them from re-entering the money supply. As every Bitcoin transaction is publicly announced this is entirely feasible if the network could find a way of coming to consensus on whether the coins were actually stolen.

With the operational failures of so many exchanges and continued problems ensuring funds in online wallets are kept safe, this seems an attractive option to increase adoption of the currency. However, such moves inevitably come at the expense of true decentralisation and blacklisting is controversial among current Bitcoin users.

Without a greater appreciation of the technical details behind virtual currencies, regulation will still be limited to the exchanges that sit on top of the Bitcoin protocol. While they serve as the bottleneck between government currencies, the possibility of consumer protection or detection of illicit uses will elude the regulators.

Depending on existing legislation, countries will also vary in the ease by which they are able to adapt definitions of the currency and ownership. These details are absent from the current policy debate and actually mark the distinctive features and possible future uses of these promising currencies.

Jonathan Levin owns 0.39 bitcoin, which he uses for research.

Meagher family backs cop over death photo

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Jill Meagher’s family supports a veteran detective who has apologised for using a crime scene photo of the murdered woman in a public presentation.

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Ms Meagher’s father told Homicide Detective Senior Sergeant Ron Iddles he had nothing to apologise for after he showed a photo of her body in a shallow grave during a talk about his job at a cancer fundraising event in regional Victoria.

Even though Ms Meagher’s family supported his use of the photo, the incident prompted outrage on Thursday, including criticism from Victoria’s premier, who said he was “sickened” by it.

But Det Snr Sgt Iddles stressed that only one person out of more than 400 who attended the event last Friday complained about the photo.

“It’s been taken totally out of context. The people who should be alarmed by it are (Jill’s) parents and they’re not, they totally support me,” he told reporters in Brisbane.

He said Ms Meagher’s father told him he’d done nothing wrong, didn’t need to apologise and also had the full support of Ms Meagher’s widowed husband in using the photograph.

Ms Meagher was raped and murdered in September last year in a case that gripped Melbourne.

The respected detective, who played a key role in the high-profile investigation, said he’s surprised by the criticism because he’s given the presentation about half a dozen times – and always in a professional and compassionate manner.

“If I have offended you in any way, I totally apologise,” he said.

Acting Deputy Commissioner Stephen Fontana said using the photo was an unfortunate error of judgment, even though the family had no objections.

“It’s probably about us as an organisation, thinking about what is appropriate in terms of presentations,” he said.

But Bendigo councillor Mark Weragoda, who attended the event, said he supports the detective.

He said he was stunned by seeing the photo for a couple of seconds on a big screen, but feels the officer’s message about looking after each other has now been lost.

“I think this is a big overreaction,” he said.

His comments came after Victorian Premier Dennis Napthine said he was shocked to hear of the photo being shown.

“This sort of thing is just totally and utterly unacceptable,” he said.

Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews said showing the photo wasn’t the right thing to do.

“Victoria Police saying sorry, the recognition that it was an error of judgment, hopefully that can be the end of it,” he said.

Police have now banned all further public presentations on operational matters until appropriate protocols have been developed.

Sex, drugs and alcohol: what really goes on at schoolies?

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By Amy Pennay, Monash University; Dan Lubman, Monash University, and Nic Droste, Deakin University

After finishing year 12, more than 50,000 young Australians attend schoolies celebrations, with most ending up on the Gold Coast.

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Other schoolies (or “leavers”, as they’re known in Western Australia) head to the Sunshine Coast, Byron Bay, Victor Harbor (South Australia), Dunsborough and Rottnest Island (WA), and Lorne and Torquay (Victoria).

Schoolies marks the end of secondary school and new beginnings. For many young people it’s their first opportunity for a holiday with friends without supervision, and takes place as they are approaching legal drinking and driving age.

It also comes at a time when teens are experimenting with booze and other substances; harmful alcohol consumption and involvement in risky behaviour tends to peak around the age of 18.

Drug of choice

Alcohol is the most commonly used substance at schoolies – and past research shows young people are loading up.

A 2009 Victorian study involving interviews with 1,116 schoolies found that just under half reported typically consuming five or more drinks in a schoolies session. Participants reported consuming more alcohol at schoolies than they typically drink.

Interviews with 405 schoolies at Rottnest Island found that males consumed an average of 18 drinks and females consumed 13 drinks per day during schoolies.

Similarly, studies from the Gold Coast have found that more than half of 658 schoolies reported getting drunk in the previous 24 hours. Of 1,796 schoolies, more than half of males and nearly 40% of females reported getting drunk every night at schoolies.

There is also evidence of illicit drug use at schoolies. One Gold Coast study found that one-third (32%) of males and 17% of females interviewed at schoolies had used cannabis in the previous 24 hours, and 6% of males and 3% of females had used ecstasy.

A study of Rottenest Island Schoolies found that 20% of school leavers used illicit drugs at schoolies, with 15% using cannabis, 12% using ecstasy and 11% using amphetamine.

But Victorian research has found lower amounts, with just 11% of young people reporting cannabis use and 3% reporting use of cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy during schoolies.

 

More than half of schoolies report drinking more than 11 standard drinks in a day. GabrielaP93

 

Of particular concern is the range of harmful behaviours that teens engage in at schoolies:

58% of young people reported blacking out

41% reported being injured

16% reported passing out drunk

10% reported being involved in a fight.

In addition, casual and unprotected sex among schoolies is common. Up to 60% of young men and 40% of young women report engage in casual sex at schoolies, with 20% of males and 30% of females reporting not using condoms on their last occasion.

Other studies have shown variation: 11% of young people in Victoria reported engaging in unprotected sex at schoolies and up to 45% of young women on the Gold Coast reported not using protection during sex at schoolies.

Perhaps surprisingly, young people attending schoolies on the Gold Coast and Rottnest Island appear to engage in more risk-taking behaviours than young people attending schoolies celebrations in Victoria.

Getting the complete picture

There are also some gaps in the research. Past studies haven’t included objective measures of alcohol consumption or intoxication (such as breath alcohol readings).

Nor have they gathered detailed information about specific consumption practices such as combining alcohol with energy drinks, combining alcohol with illicit drugs, playing drinking games and other risky drinking practices.

We still don’t know whether particular substances influence the likelihood of teens engaging in risky or harmful behaviour at schoolies. But to address these gaps, last year we surveyed 500 schoolies in Lorne and Torquay in Victoria. These findings will be published in early 2014.

 

Gold Coast and Rottnest Iland schoolies tend to take more risks that shoolies in other parts of the country. Matthew Kenwrick

 

We do know that young people are likely to drink risky levels of alcohol and engage in a range of risk-taking behaviours. And those who travel to other states for schoolies, particularly to the Gold Coast, are likely to get more drunk and take more risks.

We also know that risk-taking behaviours have not reduced over time, despite local and state governments initiating a range of non-alcohol-related activities and support services for young people during schoolies, such as Red Frogs.

So it’s important that parents, teachers and friends have honest conversations with young people about schoolies prior to the event. These tips for minimising harm might help kick start the discussion:

Make sure you have food when you consume alcohol

Drink water when you consume alcohol and try to alternate each alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink

Avoid combining alcohol with other substances, including energy drinks, licit and illicit drugs

Always look out for friends

Practice safe sex: be prepared by buying condoms prior to schoolies

Access local services such as Red Frogs for harm-reduction information and support services.

Amy Pennay receives funding from ARC, beyondblue and NDLERF.

Dan Lubman receives funding from the ARC, NHMRC, beyondblue and Rotary.

Nic Droste receives a PhD stipend from ARC, and has received funding from NHMRC, AERF, NSW Health, and St John of God.

Central Coast Mariners deny desire to relocate to North Sydney

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The club’s owner Mike Charlesworth claims he’s losing more than a million dollars a year, and with 20 percent of the Mariners members living in Sydney’s northern suburbs the players understand a business decision may have to be made.

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“We’re not in charge,” Mariners midfielder Michael McGlinchey told SBS.

“It’s up to Mike and he’s got a business to run and if he’s haemorrhaging money and he thinks he can save it by doing that [relocating], it’s his decision and it’s not for us to question.”

 

Although the Mariners have ruled out a permanent move to North Sydney, if the North Sydney Oval stands are filled with football fans next month the experiment may be continued.

 

“I think it’s all up to the fans,” North Sydney Council Mayor Jilly Gibson says.

“It’s all up to those that love their footy, come along and support this game and if it’s a success we’ll have more games I’m sure.”  

 

The now defunct Northern Spirit attracted big crowds to the venue in the late 1990’s so there’s clearly an appetite for the game in the area.

 

The Mariners will study the off-field success of the Phoenix match before any decision on future games there will be made.

 

But the local council is eager for more A-League football.   

 

“We’d love more games, we love to see our oval used as much as it can, “ Mayor Gibson says.

“I think its Sydney’s most beautiful oval and it looks fantastic when there’s a capacity crowd there.”

 

Football Federation Australia confirmed today its happy for the December 19 match to go ahead, but that the North Sydney Oval requires significant investment to become a permanent A-League venue. 

Government urged to reconsider asylum baby case

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The immigration minister is being urged to consider granting a newborn and his asylum seeker family protection visas as the case plays out in court.

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The case of a baby born in Brisbane to refugees from Myanmar returned to the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane on Thursday.

Baby Ferouz was born in Brisbane’s Mater Hospital this month after his diabetic mother was brought from Nauru for the birth, along with her husband and two other children.

Lawyers for the family of five are seeking an injunction to prevent their return to Nauru without “procedural fairness”, that is, without family members being able to present independent medical evidence.

The lawyers also want to prevent the family’s removal before it can be determined if Ferouz is entitled to Australian citizenship.

Lawyers for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison were granted a third hearing on Thursday to argue the case can only be determined in the High Court because it involves “unauthorised maritime arrivals”.

Judge Margaret Cassidy said she would give a decision about jurisdiction on Friday afternoon.

Maurice Blackburn associate Murray Watt, for the asylum seeker family, said Mr Morrison can intervene to help the family, including by granting them protection visas.

“He can step in at any moment to do that and then this whole legal action would go away,” Mr Watt told reporters.

“But rather than doing that the Commonwealth continues to stall and continues to bring this before the court.

“I’d encourage the Commonwealth to really reflect on its position about that especially in the wake of some of the things we’ve seen in the public debate this week.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees delivered a scathing report on living conditions in the Nauru detention centre this week, finding the facility was inappropriate for children.

And Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly told a Sydney audience on Wednesday night that in Ferouz’s case Australia must remember “justice has to be tempered by mercy”.