What is cryptocurrency is a common question amongst new people who first hear about bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are defined as digital assets used for medium of exchange with strong cryptography securing transactions, controlling possible creation of additional tokens or coins and verifying asset transfers. What is cryptocurrency backed by is another common question from people who are looking to get into crypto, and for that the answer is not so simple. Some of the cryptocurrencies are not backed by anything, and some of them are backed by physical assets.
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Before we take a closer look at some of these alternatives to bitcoin, let’s step back and briefly examine what we mean by terms like cryptocurrency and altcoin. A cryptocurrency, broadly defined, is virtual or digital money which takes the form of tokens or “coins.” While some cryptocurrencies have ventured into the physical world with credit cards or other projects, the large majority remain entirely intangible. The “crypto” in cryptocurrencies refers to complicated cryptography which allows for a particular digital token to be generated, stored, and transacted securely and, typically, anonymously. Alongside this important “crypto” feature of these currencies is a common commitment to decentralization; cryptocurrencies are typically developed as code by teams who build in mechanisms for issuance (often, although not always, through a process called “mining”) and other controls. Cryptocurrencies are almost always designed to be free from government manipulation and control, although as they have grown more popular this foundational aspect of the industry has come under fire.
In 2018, the US Securities and Exchange Commission maintained that "if a platform offers trading of digital assets that are securities and operates as an "exchange," as defined by the federal securities laws, then the platform must register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or be exempt from registration".[22] The Commodity Futures Trading Commission now permits the trading of cryptocurrency derivatives publicly.[23]

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The term altcoin has various similar definitions. Stephanie Yang of The Wall Street Journal defined altcoins as "alternative digital currencies,"[20] while Paul Vigna, also of The Wall Street Journal, described altcoins as alternative versions of bitcoin.[21] Aaron Hankins of the MarketWatch refers to any cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin as altcoins.[22]

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