Alex Gladstein is chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, vice president of strategy for the Oslo Freedom Forum and the preeminent advocate for Bitcoin as a tool for human rights activists around the world to fight back against censorship and government oppression. We talked over the phone just before he was appearing at a semi-exclusive Cafe Bitcoin Clubhouse with Lightning Labs founder Elizabeth Stark and uber-podcaster Peter McCormack about bringing bitcoin to billions of people worldwide (that is, not just the billionaires).
Gladstein, who began at HRF in 2007, has described Bitcoin as an “escape hatch from tyranny” and a “Trojan Horse for freedom.” In a recent contribution to Bitcoin Magazine, “Check Your Financial Privilege,” he lambasted the arrogance of wealthy bitcoin critics who live in liberal democracies and take the stability of reserve currency status for granted.
He introduces readers to a Nigerian entrepreneur, a Sudanese doctor and an Ethiopian businessman, whose stories illuminate the revolutionary impact that a permissionless, borderless, non-discriminatory monetary system could have on the billions who cannot open a savings account, send money abroad or receive payment over the internet.
The HRF, which began accepting bitcoin donations in 2014, has long recognized the digital currency’s potential as a force for individual liberty. In June 2020, it launched the Bitcoin Development Fund to support software developers working to strengthen the Bitcoin network so that it can serve as a financial tool for human rights activists, civil society organizations and journalists around the world. Grants have been awarded to developers and privacy-focused projects, including CoinSwap, JoinInbox, Zeus and Fully Noded.
In 2009, Gladstein helped launch the Oslo Freedom Forum, HRF’s series of conferences under the slogan “Challenging Power.” HRF began holding bitcoin-human rights workshops in 2017, connecting global activists with philanthropists, policymakers, artists and innovators. Gladstein guides the organization's growth, fundraising and media, focusing on advocacy for the Bitcoin network.
The following has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
CoinDesk: How do you define “human rights,” and how does Bitcoin fit into that definition?
Alex Gladstein: There are two types of human rights: negative rights (liberties) and positive rights (entitlements). The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is split, because the document was a negotiation between the Americans, who wanted liberties, and the Soviets, who wanted entitlements. The first half kind of reads like the United States’ Bill of Rights – it includes the freedom of speech and thought, private property and freedom to participate in your government. The second half includes the right to shelter, education and healthcare.
HRF focuses on negative rights, because we believe they’re the foundation for an open society that works for everybody. If a dictatorship claims to just focus on the entitlements – it’s taking a shortcut and it’s all just a house of cards. Without a free press and other basic liberties, you can’t have a vibrant, growing, healthy society.
Bitcoin underscores free speech and property rights, and it checks authoritarianism. It’s a monetary system that governments cannot manipulate. If the government has total control over the economy, it’s game over.
What are your top priorities now at the HRF and Oslo Freedom Forum?
Bitcoin is a voluntary phenomenon, but if activists want to use it, HRF wants to help them by providing education, resources and advice. We focus on supporting the improvement of the Bitcoin protocol and the apps, because the technology needs to become more usable. HRF supports the research of the Open Money Initiative, and last year, we launched a fund that gives money away to developers that are helping the Bitcoin network become more secure, resilient and offer better privacy for users.
How do activists around the world use Bitcoin to advance their causes?
Activists in many countries have major problems with money – either they live under double or triple-digit inflation, or governments are easily able to surveil and shutter their bank accounts. Bitcoin can play a huge role here because it cannot be censored or stopped.
Last October, there were protests against SARS across Nigeria. The Feminist Coalition had to begin accepting money through Bitcoin because all of their bank accounts were frozen. In Belarus, the opposition movement is using bitcoin to support pro-democracy activists because it's the safest way for them to receive money. In Russia, many journalists and media outlets covering Alexei Navalny have had their accounts frozen and are now using bitcoin. These are just a few examples.
What do you want newcomers to the Bitcoin community to know?
Bitcoin can help everybody. I focus on helping people living under authoritarian regimes, but there’s monetary repression happening everywhere. Don’t forget that there are millions of people in America who are underbanked or who are financially discriminated against.
There’s a lot of scams out there, and it’s hard for people to differentiate between bitcoin and thousands of other cryptocurrencies. I would encourage newcomers to spend a few months developing a solid understanding of why Bitcoin is different – why Bitcoin is the revolution. It’s a money system that is beyond the control of any one group of people, and we’ve never had anything like that before.
How can the Bitcoin community best support the work of the Human Rights Foundation?
Bitcoin is a global, open-source money project that is an alternative – or the only option – for so many people. The best way to support HRF’s work is to give back to Bitcoin developers who are improving the network and making Bitcoin more decentralized and resilient. You can donate through OpenSats, Brink or HRF’s Bitcoin Development Fund. A lot of developers have a GitHub page where you can donate to them directly. Invest in strengthening the network, and we’ll all benefit.