I am on a Zoom call with a woman from Shiraz, Iran, who is currently working as a freelance designer and is running a course that educates local populations on the fundamentals of blockchain and decentralized finance (DeFi).
The dominant narrative seems to be that in Iran, cryptocurrencies play an important role in helping people buy imports as one way of coping with the pressure of sanction, but the reality – as my interviewee assures me – is way harsher.
Ann Brody is a Ph.D. student in Communication Studies at McGill University, where she researches blockchain technology and culture. This article is excerpted from The Node, CoinDesk's daily roundup of the most pivotal stories in blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here.
Imagine you live in a place where you are denied access to basic services like Spotify and Netflix and then you stumble upon blockchain, which finally grants you the freedom to participate in these kinds of services and transact with anyone you want in the world. Then one day you log into your MetaMask wallet and realize that you can’t connect to the network and view your balance because you’ve just been geo-blocked.
“For a moment I thought that all my hard-earned revenue had just evaporated into thin air. Because I live in Iran, I can’t access basic web services, and now I can’t even access decentralized finance. How is that fair?” the freelance designer asks me.
Geo-blocking IPs is now becoming a common practice among blockchain and cryptocurrency companies that are actively trying to legally protect themselves from engaging with sanctioned entities. Geo-blocking sets limits on access to online content based on a user’s physical location by monitoring the user’s IP address.
Crypto’s philosophy of decentralization is premised on the belief that everyone should be able to participate in decentralized finance. Yet, what appears to be happening is that many people around the world can’t find an entry point into it in the first place.
Every day, hundreds of Iranian users are getting kicked out of international online cryptocurrency exchanges, with their funds getting frozen for unknown periods of time – and often, they don’t even get that money back. This is unfortunate considering the Iranian population is already unable to participate in social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Telegram without the use of VPNs and even applications like GitHub and Slack, which are important for collaborative work.
Although these restrictions can be bypassed using VPN services, this also requires issuing another level of trust to shady services that are not always reliable, contradicting blockchain’s purpose. In essence this means people residing in sanctioned countries are being denied access to services both internally and externally, and the promise of decentralization seems to apply only to some populations and completely disregard others.
To be sure, even if crypto isn’t fully decentralized, it’s perhaps more open than or equally as accessible as its alternatives and certainly offers many benefits. For instance, it can enable people to participate in certain financial and market applications without having extensive knowledge in trading and investment in contrast to traditional finance.
But to ensure that decentralized finance succeeds in areas where traditional finance has failed, developers and other stakeholders in this community have to start addressing issues pertaining to regulation and reframing the narrative around “decentralization.” By embracing a more sober outlook on what this technology can and cannot do in its present social and political context, only this way will we be able to construct more robust tools that will hopefully serve more than the needs of wealthy financial interests.
Next time you stumble on the profile of a crypto company with a mission statement that starts with something along the lines of “making a more accessible financial system,” it’s a good idea to take a pause and reflect on the following questions: To whom is this financial system being made more accessible? Who is getting to decide what decentralization means and what it should look like?
If decentralized finance is being built for those already in power and can’t serve the needs of those who need it the most, then it’s really no better than traditional finance.