What you need to know
If there is one thing able to stop the Chinese panopticon, it might just be Bitcoin.
Early in July, The News Lens sat down with Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a nonprofit that advocates for human rights in closed societies, to discuss the potential importance of Bitcoin as a counter to authoritarianism.
Gladstein, who spoke passionately on the topic at the 2018 Asia Blockchain Summit, has served as Vice President of Strategy for the Oslo Freedom Forum since its inception in 2009, and is a former foreign policy advisor to the UK government.
The News Lens: Can you recap the talk you gave at the 2018 Asia Blockchain Summit?
Alex Gladstein: Dictators have always looked for ways to control people and surveil them, so I dived into what’s happening in China, where the government is using your behavior data, everything they can suck off your phone, and putting that into a giant surveillance cloud.
In some regions they are producing what’s called a “citizen score”, a social credit score. They’re going to target dissidents, journalists, protesters with that so they’re going to have low scores, too low to get a visa, send their kids to a good school, get a loan. No one is going to want to associate with these people.
When you make the incentive that strong they are going to find themselves with not many dissidents, and that’s due to intensely centralized technology. I show what’s happening in Xinjiang with them putting the [Uyghur] Muslims in camps. You can’t even get a gas bill without getting your face scanned there – it’s totally Bladerunner.
Even here in Taiwan you don’t own your own data – Apple, Facebook, Google or Twitter does. One of the most talked about TED talks given this year is by Jaron Lanier, he talks about how we need to build an internet that we own, where our actions are not policed by third parties, specifically talking about Google and Facebook.
We all know dictatorship is much more efficient than democracy – you don’t have to deal with elections, private property or free media, you can do whatever you want. But there’s beauty in the distribution of power. It creates an open system and society. The undeniable magic of creating a governance structure that no one person owns – that took us millennia to figure out.
TNL: Why you think Bitcoin can play a role as a defense against authoritarianism?
AG: The world is at a crossroads. We're either going to go to a centralized world or a decentralized one, and I wanted to make it clear that Bitcoin is one way we can go to a decentralized world.
Bitcoin took a long time because it is built on so many different technologies, but it came to a similar conclusion: A money network that no one person can own, and that is equally as powerful as democracy in its own field.
The number one use case for crypto is Bitcoin as a store of value for people living under authoritarian and corrupt governments.
For the first time in history we have censorship resistant money. I learn more everyday about Bitcoin, including layer-two solutions like Lightening – what they’re doing there is groundbreaking – there is huge potential of decentralized apps if they can work well and scale. We’re talking about putting a tool of freedom in the hands of billions of people.
TNL: And how does that relate to your work?
AG: I work mainly with people living under authoritarian governments, which don’t have those checks and balances that would prevent something like WeChat happening in Taiwan – parliament would vote against it.
Four billion people live under those regimes and they desperately need some kind of censorship resistant money. The number one use case for crypto is Bitcoin as a store of value for people living under authoritarian and corrupt governments. Imagine if you had bought Bitcoin in Venezuela five years ago?
I was reading “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” [by Ori Brafman, 2006]. It’s about the power of decentralized organizations, and it looks at how Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors destroyed the Mayas and the Incas relatively easily but were defeated by the Apache Indians in Mexico – basically a leaderless organization.
And Napster was shutdown because it was centralized but others like Limewire basically destroyed the music industry because it was not constructed that way – its very difficult to stop these organizations that are decentralized and powered by the crowd: that’s what Bitcoin is, no government can kill it.
TNL: Whereas in China we have the total opposite happening?
AG: Today in [urban] China, paper and metal money is very little used, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was banned in a few years. The government has achieved a panoptic level of surveillance where every single transaction between every single human in China – it’s scattered at the moment because there are different companies pouring their data to one place – but the goal is to unify that and at least each major region would have a unified system.
TNL: And WeChat and AliPay are the enablers?
AG: You make cash illegal, drug dealers and criminals are still going to use it, so you’re creating a blackmarket for cash, but most people don’t want to take that risk. They want a high [social credit] score. If you have a low score and we’re in the same room then WeChat knows and my score will fall. For sure if we’re connected on social media my score will go down. It will create a network effect.
If there’s one thing that can stop the Chinese panopticon, it might be Bitcoin.
This issue of turning the desire to make your country better into trouble is the most brilliant thing the Chinese have ever done. Chinese people view [the deceased Nobel Peace Prize winner and rights advocate Liu Xiaobo] and journalists and protesters as bad people, that’s brilliant. And that will be cemented by the citizen score system.
TNL: And Bitcoin is the answer?
AG: Bitcoin is a way out. If there’s one thing that can stop the Chinese panopticon, it might be Bitcoin. The world’s largest most elaborate surveillance system potentially being undone by magic internet money created by we don’t know who – how cool would that be?
As long as Bitcoin is there and valuable, it will be a scourge for them. They are talking about how amazing blockchain is – Xi Jinping and state television talked about it last month being 10 times bigger than the internet. They are trying to create a digital cryptocurrency but theirs will allow them to have total control over everybody.
TNL: What do you say to those that oppose censorship resistant crypto because it enables crime?
AG: We need to care about Bitcoin from a human rights angle because it does give us that censorship resistant money, but we also need to understand that blockchain will be used to make bad stuff, raise money for bad people and give them good PR. There’s a lot of gullible journalists out there writing stuff about “Oh, Moscow is making its elections more fair” – that’s bullshit, there’s no way they’re going to do that. They are using something called “proof of authority” instead of proof of work or proof of stake, so super nodes can overrule everything else.
Blockchain tech is going to be manipulated by good and bad governments, by governments period, to control their citizens, get good PR and raise money. The goal of the Human Rights Foundation is to connect human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents. We want them to be knowledgeable about blockchain so they can be on the edge.
Let’s get this in Farsi, Arabic, Malay – the basic texts about why Bitcoin was created, what it is and how it works – these should be non-technical chapters for the average person.
TNL: Is blockchain really there as a technology to provide the kind of counter to authoritarianism you’re talking about?
AG: I think that in almost every single application we are too early except for store of value in a dictatorship or sending money in a way that you don’t want to be stopped. I’d love to live in a world where I can walk into the doctors and the doc asks my permission for my encrypted health records on a pubic, open blockchain that no one owns, but I feel we are so far away from that…
TNL: Like in Estonia?
AG: No because it’s not public or open. Their system is controlled by the government. What’s happening in Estonia now is fantastic because good guys are running it, but what if Putin invades tomorrow? Then he turns that into a tool of oppression. We’re going to need software and systems that are not manipulatable. There’s so little academic study being done on the impact of Bitcoin and other decentralized blockchain technology on politics and society.
TNL: How can you encourage investment in decentralized blockchains?
AG: In impact investing, people do health, ed, clean-tech. What they don’t have is dem-tech. You’d be looking at investing in decentralized tech – an investing strategy that looks to protect the rights of citizens. That would be a cool way of strengthening civil liberties and putting a check on authoritarianism.