Crypto's One Unassailable Use Case: Helping Human Rights Activists

The Oslo Freedom Forum was heavy on bitcoin and stablecoin discussions, underscoring that this technology is a tool for political dissidents, not just a get-rich-quick scheme.

By Anna BaydakovaLayer 2
AccessTimeIconMay 27, 2022 at 8:41 p.m. UTCUpdated Jun 4, 2022 at 5:48 p.m. UTC
By Anna BaydakovaLayer 2
AccessTimeIconMay 27, 2022 at 8:41 p.m. UTCUpdated Jun 4, 2022 at 5:48 p.m. UTC

Anna Baydakova is an investigative reporter with a special focus on Eastern Europe and Russia. Anna owns BTC.

Attendees at this week’s Oslo Freedom Forum, a 13-year-old annual gathering for human rights and pro-democracy activists, might have wondered at times if they’d mistakenly wandered into a cryptocurrency conference.

Bitcoin developer Jimmy Song’s signature cowboy hat could be spotted here and there at the Oslo Concert Hall, where the forum, organized by the Human Rights Foundation, took place. The erudite investor and entrepreneur Nic Carter strolled around with an umbrella cane. On stage, author and podcaster Laura Shin interviewed a non-fungible token (NFT) artist. The stalwarts of Bitcoin and Lightning Network development held workshops on using the currency, and crypto CEOs discussed hedging strategies for a potential ban on stablecoins backstage.

A crypto conference, of course, would not normally feature human rights activists recounting their first-hand experience of political oppression, investigative journalists sharing how they fight propaganda and cybersecurity specialists checking phones for traces of spyware.

But if you think about it, crypto events maybe could be a little more about those kinds of things.

While for many crypto is a way to get rich, for others it’s a human rights tool, providing sometimes clumsy but still serviceable ways to route around financial censorship and surveillance, especially in those parts of the world where such measures are prevalent.

And that use case is not going away, no matter which direction the price of bitcoin (BTC) goes.

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Pseudonymous dev going by the handle Rockstar Developer leads a BTCPayServer workshop at the Oslo Freedom Forum / Jan Khür (Photo: © Oslo Freedom Forum / Jan Khür )

Using Bitcoin

“If no one values bitcoin other than a penny, we’re still able to [move value across the world] and fight for freedom,” said Jack Mallers, CEO of bitcoin payments startup Strike, sporting an orange and violet sweater and “Miracle Academy” hat on stage.

Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation and the curator of the financial freedom track at the Oslo Freedom Forum, was asked if he believes the activist community is warming up to crypto. He replied that the reason he incorporates bitcoin content into the program is “because many organizations are already using it.” In some cases, they do so thanks to him.

Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist helping to free victims of human traffickers in Eritrea, says she was skeptical about bitcoin at first, but warmed to it after attending Gladstein’s workshops. At the same time, the government in Eritrea was tightening the screws on Hawala, the centuries-old remittances system relying on a network of people passing cash between each other across borders.

Now, Hawala brokers are asking for their clients’ names “and I can not send my mom any money using my name” because the authorities in Eritrea are after her for her human rights advocacy, says Estefanos, who is based in Sweden. So bitcoin became a remittance channel for her: Now, she is paying a team of researchers in bitcoin to help her.

For activists from Russia whose work has sent them into exile, bitcoin also became a lifeline connecting people to the ones they left behind at home, said Leonid Volkov, who managed crypto donations for Alexey Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader.

“After our movement was outlawed in Russia and we were forced to relocate abroad, we realized bitcoin is very important as we can use it to support our friends and colleagues back in Russia. Because otherwise, they would be receiving money from ‘terrorists,’” Volkov said, referring to how the government is labeling Navalny’s organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Bitcoin can serve as an underground payment channel in regimes with abusive financial surveillance, when receiving money from abroad puts activists in the authorities’ crosshairs. That was the case when Students for Liberty, a U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) supporting student protests around the globe, needed to send money to a student in China.

“We sent a payment, and the next day he was summoned to the police station to explain what that was about,” Wolf von Laer, the organization’s CEO, said. He also told CoinDesk he sent bitcoin to some of his staff in Ukraine when they needed to evacuate from a dangerous area during the ongoing military invasion by Russia.

Stablecoin concerns

At least partly due to Gladstein’s own long-term devotion to bitcoin, most crypto-related panels at the forum have been dedicated to the oldest and largest cryptocurrency, with a series of practical workshops on various software and services for bitcoin payments.

However, stablecoins also got some attention during a panel with Tether Chief Technology Officer Paolo Ardoino and Ire Aderinokun, co-founder of African crypto firm Helicarrier.

Ardoino assured the audience Tether was capable of redeeming its stablecoin, USDT, in large amounts even in times of crisis, like the one that took place after the Terra protocol’s UST, an algorithmic stablecoin, and its sister cryptocurrency LUNA crashed.

The audience seemed to receive Ardoino’s talk well. After the panel, however, he was approached by Obi Nwosu, the founder of U.K. crypto exchange Coinfloor. He asked what kind of insurance could be created against the risk of Tether failing, especially for holders in countries where they can’t receive U.S. dollars in exchange for USDT.

“I think that Tether would fail only if the governments ban it,” Nwosu said. They discussed a possibility to create a kind of insurance policy when USDT holders would receive as much bitcoin as their tethers were supposed to be worth, but the question how exactly that should work was left open for now.

The question of Tether’s reliability and resilience is especially important for people deprived of access to financial services, who are vulnerable to the quirks of their own unstable economies and see USDT as the only available substitute to a U.S. dollar-denominated bank account. Nigeria is one example, Aderinokun said.

“Dollar-denominated accounts are not accessible to everyone and you need to be spending $20 a month” in fees to keep one, she said. “And you might wake up one day to realize the government has converted all your dollars to naira.”

A grain of salt

The human rights angle, in addition to being one of the strongest arguments in favor of cryptocurrencies’ existence, also balances out parts of the crypto narrative in which arrogance, greed and other unsavory aspects of human nature often steal the show.

Nelson Rauda, a Salvadoran investigative journalist for El Faro, poured cold water on the much-touted change in El Salvador, which recognized bitcoin as a legal tender last year after a push from President Nayib Bukele.

While bitcoiners wrote elated tweets over the move, for ordinary Salvadorians, who are concerned about losing the little money they have to bitcoin’s volatility or the flaws of the government-blessed bitcoin wallet, nothing exciting has happened so far, Rauda said. “Go to the streets and you’ll see that people are not taking it.”

And the rhetoric of rich bitcoiners telling not-so-rich Salvadorians how bright their future will be is galling, especially when it comes to “Bitcoin City,” a techno-utopian project to transform the city of La Union into a place where the local economy runs on bitcoin.

The project might “erase” the community living in La Union, whose homes are slated to be demolished to build Bukele’s dream, Rauda said.

“I was last week in the house of a fisherman, who is being displaced, and the community is being displaced by millionaires that are going to support Bitcoin City,” he said, adding:

“Bitcoin has roots in the cypherpunk movement. It was created by people who were activists. How did this change to millionaires flying around on helicopters in Salvador? It makes no sense to me.”

Maybe that’s something to discuss at the regular crypto conferences, too.

UPDATE (June 4, 17:43 UTC): Fixes typo in seventh paragraph. Jack Mallers is the CEO of Strike, not Stripe. An editing error was to blame.

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Anna Baydakova is an investigative reporter with a special focus on Eastern Europe and Russia. Anna owns BTC.

Anna Baydakova is an investigative reporter with a special focus on Eastern Europe and Russia. Anna owns BTC.