The Bitcoin Embassy in Amsterdam opened its doors just last month on December 12, 2014, and it is already hosting regular events for such companies as OpenBazaar and BitPay, as well as organizing social get-togethers several times a week.
The Amsterdam Bitcoin Embassy
Inspired by the Tel Aviv Bitcoin emBassy, the Amsterdam embassy strives to become the place to go for everything Bitcoin, not only for locals, but also as for enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and just about everyone interested in cryptocurrency who passes through one of Europe’s major transit hubs from America, Asia and elsewhere.
I sat down with the embassy’s founder and ambassador, Marek Skonieczny, who explained why he decided to start the embassy despite the Bitcoin Foundation already having established a foothold in the city.
“The Bitcoin Embassy was a screen against the Bitcoin Foundation Netherlands,” explained Skonieczny. “Because the Bitcoin Foundation was lobbying that Bitcoin is money.”
Sitting in a backroom of the Hofje van Wijs Cafe, the physical location of the embassy, Marek explained how the whole project started:
“[The foundation] are the guys who [organized] Bitcoin Wednesdays meet-ups in Amsterdam. Practically, they trick us into the meet-ups: we think we are coming to the Bitcoin meet-ups, but they are only pitching about their business. There is one company called Bitonic. And they say they are an exchange but they don’t have an order book; they just buy bitcoins from people and you can go to their website and buy bitcoins with iDeal via the bank. But you don’t get money directly. Sometimes you have to wait like a week to see the funds sent to your account, like a Mark Karpeles kind of thing.
“And the banks wanted to close [Bitonic] because of the regulations. People do the scams like this, they buy bitcoins from their accounts or from phishing accounts, they send them to Bitonic and then they go to the bank and say ‘sorry guys but someone stole the money, there is no money and it went to some strange Bitonic account.’ So they call Bitonic and say ‘what is this?’ So such companies will always be a problem for banks."
—Annet de Boer (Arnhem Bitcoinstad/Cryptogeld/BitKassa) and Marek Skonieczny (Mr. Bitcoin)
“And the embassy practically was the answer to all of this. Because the Bitonic lobby lost their case in court, they wanted 15,000 euro to reopen it and they put a QR-code on the Bitcoin Foundation website. […] So we should pay to lobby that Bitcoin is money. And during the meet-up they wanted to vote. So we said, ‘Listen guys, we understand that if this thing gets through and if bitcoins is money, you will be the only company in Holland who will have permission from the banks to operate and we, about sixty of us, will all be without jobs.”
The regulatory situation in the Netherlands, much like cannabis, is in a grey area when it comes to Bitcoin.
“In Holland they don’t want any companies who deal with bitcoins because there is too much risk,” Marek explained. “Private people who have bank accounts and they go on bitcoin exchanges to buy bitcoins—[the banks] don’t care. But if you are a company, you get a call after one or two weeks and they tell you that you are using a bitcoin exchange and that they don’t accept that money.”
He also added:
“If you have ‘Bit’ in your company name, forget about it.”
Ironically, these are the same Dutch banks like ING and ABN Amro that Cointelegraph reported to be taking increasing interest in blockchain technology. I asked whether the cafe that hosts the embassy had any problems with the Dutch banks. “No,” replied Marek. “But that’s because [the owner] keeps all the bitcoins and doesn’t change them.”
Thus, opening up a Bitcoin company vis-a-vis the legacy banking system is rather difficult in Holland due to the perceived “risk” from banks and regulators.
“Then the next day someone mysteriously paid the 15,000 euro and they reopened their case in court. So we were very angry. The next day on the ATM, we decided to put Dogecoin and Litecoin because we say if bitcoin is money then we want everything to be money, so that was our protest.
“What is a Bitcoin foundation, a foundation is an organization that has no members, so practically there are three, four people on the board and they decide for a whole community. So we decided to do the embassy. We are not [officially] registered and we wanted to do it the Bitcoin way. So we have sponsors and they pay directly to the cafe owner. So if you look, it’s like we do not exist but we are still here, it’s like a well-organized club. Maybe we will register in the future on the blockchain instead of going the old-fashioned way of the last century.”
He also explained that he has been a member of the Bitcoin Foundation for the past two years and that last May, he decided to quit for the reasons aforementioned. “I told them that I quit,” said Marek, “and then they sent me a honorary membership so I couldn’t even quit the foundation.”
Now, Amsterdam’s Bitcoin locals have another option and the embassy’s opening night was a great success with “people coming from all over Europe, England, London, Brussels, etc.” He envisions the venue to be the center for all Bitcoin-related activities in Amsterdam and says it is needed to foster the growing interest in cryptocurrencies among locals and sojourners, despite admitting that it “will be very empty in the beginning.”
Marek is an ardent Bitcoin believer and never misses an opportunity to familiarize people with the new technology. “I have AirBnB with 25 people passing through every month,” he told me. “Every single one is leaving with a bitcoin wallet and one dollar. And we have some people coming back already.”
And despite the slow adoption pace, we both agreed that Bitcoin has already succeeded in one major way, particularly in hindsight when looking at the financial crisis of 2008, for example, before the advent of cryptocurrencies.
“The beautiful thing about Bitcoin is that 5 years ago we were not ready for the collapse of this [financial system] scheme. And right now at least we know that there is an alternative. If it collapses, then we still have our money.”
—Bitcoin Embassy mug alongside with the mug of a sponsor
Since one of the most popular analogies is comparing Bitcoin to the internet, I asked Marek in what year he thinks we are currently, in terms of Bitcoin’s progression. He replied:
“I still think we’re sitting with Steve Jobs in the shed. We just finished building the wooden apple.”
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