This post is part of CoinDesk's 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Alex Gladstein is Chief Strategy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation and Vice President of Strategy for the Oslo Freedom Forum since its inception in 2009.
We are in an era of gradual global bitcoin awakening. The technology has proven robust and resistant to attacks. Over time, the price has continued to climb from pennies to thousands of dollars. Brilliant entrepreneurs and scientists are improving the protocol’s usability, privacy, decentralization and network resilience. Still, it’s important to remember that only a very tiny percentage of people on this planet understand its value as a tool of freedom.
In my work at the Human Rights Foundation, I have the privilege to meet hundreds of dissidents, activists, and journalists from difficult political environments. To date, very few have meaningfully used bitcoin or started to realize its power as a financial escape valve and parallel economy. That ratio is starting to shift, but only in what seems like slow motion.
Even as the bitcoin network pushes into its 12th year of existence, mainstream consumers and corporate users remain stubbornly closed-minded towards the technology. Well-read, intelligent business leaders, politicians, philanthropists, and media parrot the same talking points: bitcoin is too volatile; it’s only for terrorists and drug dealers; it’s pure speculation and has no actual value; it’s an environmental disaster; and, most recently, that it won’t survive the rise of quantum computing. Unfortunately, these arguments (which I tried to debunk in an essay earlier this year) have trickled down to the average person. This collective anti-narrative is strong and prevents greater numbers of people from developing curiosity in bitcoin, from learning about bitcoin, and from using bitcoin.
Our world’s growing financial perils are much-discussed: rampant inflation, rising national debts, fiat devaluation, financial surveillance, and a fear of increasing corporate and government control over our money as cash disappears. You can’t go a day without reading about some aspect of global economic malaise in the front pages of your favorite newspaper or website. There are many pundits who claim to know why the world is going in this direction – but very few who understand that bitcoin is a way out. Many of those who do learn tend to do so out of necessity, not out of luxury.
For example: independent media outlets and civil society organizations in Hong Kong are starting to accept bitcoin donations because their banking accounts are being monitored and controlled; Venezuelans, Iranians, and Palestinians are using bitcoin to do cross-border payments and break through financial controls and sanctions; Chinese are using bitcoin to convert their wealth into an confiscation-resistant store of value; Argentines, Turks, and Lebanese are using bitcoin to opt out of collapsing fiat systems; Syrians and Nigerians are working in the software industry and earning money in bitcoin and using local peer to peer markets to withdraw into fiat to buy goods when necessary; just to name a few. As time goes on, more and more people are realizing that bitcoin can be a way for them to achieve financial sovereignty in an era of increasing instability and surveillance.
As we head into 2020, what are bitcoin's prospects as tool for freedom? Ironically, even in the most democratic countries, bitcoin users need to worry about privacy. American and European governments are just as likely as authoritarian regimes to hire chain analysis companies to track bitcoin user activity. Regardless of your geographic location, you’ll want to see base-layer privacy improvements; wider usage of mixers and other ways to obfuscate transactions; and bigger Lightning Network capacity. If successful, these will allow a growing number bitcoin users to operate without fear of reprisal. As more governments wisen up and turn to chain analysis tools, individuals need ways to protect themselves.
Beyond privacy, the ability for individuals to buy bitcoin with fiat and convert bitcoin into fiat is a big challenge. In the past few years we have seen an incredible increase in local liquidity, where it’s now fairly easy to buy or sell bitcoin in most major urban areas around the world, even inside dictatorships and countries in conflict. If you have bitcoin in Tehran, Beijing, Aleppo, Caracas, or even Gaza, with a bit of research you’ll be able to find someone who will sell you fiat in return. But this infrastructure needs to continue to improve if bitcoin is to live up to its true promise of a borderless, permissionless, censorship-resistant store of value and money for everyone, especially as governments increasingly crack down on exchanges and on- and off-ramps.
As we look forward to 2020, bitcoin “as is” is working as Satoshi intended and is already powerful enough to materially help hundreds of millions of people facing financial repression. The problem is, they just don’t know about it yet. It is incumbent upon those in the Bitcoin community to continue to find ways to share knowledge about this remarkable invention with others. Yes, we face technical, infrastructural, and legal challenges. But the biggest is just a matter of more effectively spreading the word.
For 2020, rather than spending time talking to others already in the bitcoin space, make it a goal to talk to new communities: entrepreneurs, activists, journalists, and creatives in difficult political and economic environments. If they face financial obstacles, they’ll see the value in bitcoin, and spread it through their own networks. This could very well be a better use of your time than giving your usual talk to the same old crowd.