Audio interview transcription — WBD056
Note: the following is a transcription of my interview with Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation. I use Rev.com from translations and they remove ums, errs and half sentences. I have reviewed the transcription but if you find any mistakes, please feel free to email me. You can listen to the original recording here.
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In this episode, I talk with Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer at The Human Rights Foundation. We discuss how Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies increase freedom under authoritarian regimes and how Dem Tech could lead to a wave of investment in crypto.
Interview Date: Thursday 6th Dec, 2018
“A lot of the dismissals, criticisms and attacks on Bitcoin come from people who have the luxury of having a stable financial system.”
— Alex Gladstein
Peter McCormack: Good evening Alex, how are you?
Alex Gladstein: I’m wonderful, thank you for having me on.
Peter McCormack: Hey, thanks for coming on. I’ve heard a couple of your interviews in the past and I’ve found them fascinating. It’s great to talk to you. One of the interesting things about doing my research is that I probably quite naively assumed the human rights foundation had been established years ago and it was only when I did my research and preparation, it was actually tied to Venezuela. I think it’d be a good Alex … A good way of starting is for you to just give your background. How came to be chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation. What your mandate is and your primary activities. Yeah, that’d be a great way to start.
Alex Gladstein: Sure. In some ways, the Human Rights Foundation is an organization that cares deeply about decentralization and I’ll unpack that for you. Basically, it’s an organization it’s a non-profit that looks at how governments are structured around the world and senses weakness or a problem in governments that are highly centralized. In more than 90 countries around the world. For billions of people, power is in the hands of one man or one small group of men. Precisely about 93 countries and about 4 billion people. In the societies, you really think about whether it’s scientific achievements and patents rates and innovations or whether you care about welfare and justice and literacy rates and life expectancies and maternal health rates or whether you care about. Even things like peace and war, no two liberal democracies ever fought each other.
Alex Gladstein: We just believe there’s tremendous value in whether you want to call it decentralized governance or liberal democracy it’s up to you. Basically, systems of governance where people are ruled by rules, not rulers. This is a very particular specific mission that we have, we’re basically students of authoritarianism, we study how it works and how we can help people who live under these regimes. Ranging from people who live under governments in Cuba to Zimbabwe to Burma, to North Korea, to China, to Russia. Unfortunately, there are just so many of them, in every part of the world. But we really take a particular tact and we figure out how can we help people who live in places that don’t have freedom of the press and an independent judiciary. Where they can’t hire a human rights lawyer or go to a local non-profit to protect them and whether you’re trying to promote labour rights or trying to save the environment or trying to out a local politician for corruption, you can’t do that in a dictatorship. There’s no mechanism for that. Where you can do it safely.
Alex Gladstein: If you look what’s happening in France these past few days, you’re looking at a massive people power movement that’s going to result in the change of policy of the federal government. It’s not really something you can do in a dictatorship, so we just have to kind of think about the architectures of our societies and realize that some of them are a lot more centralized than others and I really do think and believe that if you stack up the top 20 most prominent dictatorships or tyrannies or centralized societies. With the top 20 most decentralized, the democratic ones that for nearly almost anything you want as a human you’d rather be in a free society. I think that kind of underlines and undergirds our work. I started my journey at the human rights foundation in 2007 as an intern. I was working in the British Parliament actually as a research assistant to the lib dens at the time, doing little briefs and papers for the lib den shadow foreign secretary as he travelled the world.
Alex Gladstein: I applied to a job in New York City at the Human Rights Foundation. It was about a year old at the time and I got the job. I went to New York City and my first task was to put together backpacks filled with outside information that we would send into the Cuban underground library movement. Basically at the time and still to a large extent today, all information in Cuba is controlled by the Communist party. If you want a book or movie it has to be approved by them. We decided to stir up some trouble in a good way and send in through people who are Latin-American and could travel to Cuba freely, technology and media that gave them a taste of the outside world. For example, it might be a dubbed version of V For Vendetta or Braveheart or something like that. They’d actually watch these movies and films and read these books in small discussion groups in circles inside people’s homes and then talk about them. You know this was back in ‘89.
Alex Gladstein: This later grew into what’s now [inaudible 00:04:55] system which is they got kind of a way where some people Cuba will install a satellite dish and download content illegally and put it on to a hard drive and distribute it around neighbourhoods and people will download what they want off of it and that’s how it’s evolved. At the time it was like people were entirely reliant on things being brought in from outside of Cuba to learn about what was happening. That was my first experience, I found it really powerful, really moving, very innovative and I decided to work full time for them. I got a job offer at the end of that summer and I’ve been working for them ever since on a variety of projects. In 2015 I was appointed chief strategy officer now I’m leading where we’re going to go, how we’re going to grow, how we’re going to raise funds, make new partnerships and what kind of our media and public advocacy strategy is going to be.
Peter McCormack: Cuba is often romanticized though as a good form of communism.
Alex Gladstein: Yeah, I would say that it’s typically romanticized by two groups of people. The rulers in Cuba who are kleptocrats, thieves in power basically and people who haven’t been to Cuba. Who like to have this romantic fantasy that it’s this great place where everybody has got free healthcare and housing. This is a country where there were cholera outbreaks recently, where you are arrested or speaking your mind or painting something on a wall that the government doesn’t agree with. This is a country that has a really horrible hospital infrastructure actually if you go and read about it, look at it and research it. Really a remarkable brainwashing system where it’s very difficult for people to learn about the outside world and I think people have been really held back there, that’s a sad thing. If you really think about it how many world-class companies or inventions or lifesaving cures have been coming out of Cuba lately. Very few. The really smart Cubans have had to leave.
Alex Gladstein: There’s this thing called brain drain that happens to most dictatorships. Where people flee because they can’t exercise themselves and express themselves and work on what they want to work on in a tyrannical society. They end up going somewhere else. Countries like Spain and the United States have benefited from that I think in a lot of ways. Some of the smartest Cubans have gone and given their fruits to societies elsewhere.
Peter McCormack: Che Guevara a teacher are they actually just a great piece of propaganda?
Alex Gladstein: Yeah. Che Guevara was a murderer and a homophobe and someone who kept people in prison camps. It’s astonishing to me anytime I see someone with a Che shirt. I guess I understand what they’re saying but it’s just horribly ignorant and very offensive to all the people who were killed by him and his revolution. One of the things that HRF wants to do is do a lot of public education in this area of dictatorship democracy. We do publish a lot in mainstream media outlets, we do a lot of campaigns that seek to put the issue of dictatorship and corruption and authoritarianism into places like ESPN and Good Morning America and Billboard and People and even Pitchfork and music magazines. We try to take this issue and get it onto the radar of people who don’t ordinarily think about like basic human rights and freedoms. That’s a big part of our strategy.
Peter McCormack: How similar is the situation now in Venezuela as to what happened in Cuba?
Alex Gladstein: Well I mean look there’s obviously similarities in as much as there’s an authoritarian power structure, it’s very different. I mean in Venezuela you had a country that was famous for being the shelter destination for Latin Americans when there were dictatorships across the continent. People were fleeing there and Venezuela was a proud place where people could seek refuge in a free country. That has turned into the complete opposite where now more Venezuelans according to the UN are fleeing Venezuela, every day than Syrians fleeing Syria. You have millions of Venezuelans who have left Venezuela and are now living in other countries in Latin Americas as refugees. It’s really quite sad and was it preventable? Probably. Hugo Chavez throughout 2000 left some pretty obvious signs from the very beginning that he was going to create a dictatorship.
Alex Gladstein: I mean by shutting down the media and confiscating the property of people he didn’t like and enriching his family and engaging in grand corruption and basically seeking and forging alliances with other dictatorships like Iran and Russia and stacking the judiciary and the Parliament rather the assembly with his own cronies. This was all happening and the world big basically did very little. Even other human rights groups and establishment organizations were pretty quiet on human rights violations in Venezuela until quite late in Chavez’s presidency. Which is one of the other reasons the human rights foundation was created? Our founder is a Venezuelan activist named Thor Halverson who saw all this happening and no one is really doing anything about it 2004, ’05, ’56 and he decided to create an organization that would focus explicitly on closed and closing societies.
Alex Gladstein: That were either outright dictatorships or going through some sort of democratic erosion. Again, that colours a lot of our thinking is looking at how the balance of power and separation of powers and healthy civil society are really good things for humans.
Peter McCormack: Chavez was able to achieve this takeover of power by appealing to the working class, to the populace with his social policies?
Alex Gladstein: Yes, of course. He was wildly popular. He was absolutely a populist. It’s just when you mix populism with the ability to start dismantling and countries rules and rule set. That gets immediately dangerous. It’s one thing to have a populist in power who’s checked by a constitution or by an independent supreme court or by a legislature that challenges and checks and can investigate this person when they break the law. But in Chavez’s case, he mixed populism with the creeping authoritarianism that became outright authoritarianism by the time he died.
Peter McCormack: Is there any research into the patterns about how and why the country will change or migrate from a democratic society to an authoritarian. Does it really just come down to power-hungry individuals?
Alex Gladstein: There are enormous amounts of scholarship on both sides. In the 80s and 90s and early 2000, you had this incredible wave of democratization. Everywhere from Portugal, to South Korea to many places in Africa and Asia and Latin America were actually becoming democratized and they were throwing off the shackles of authoritarianism and colonialism and becoming independent. You see the legacy of this in the fact that the world now has dozens and dozens and dozens of countries and basically close to half of humanity lives under some sort of our liberal democracy. At the same time around the year 2000, you started to see things sort of start to turn in the other direction, start to stagnate a little bit. You saw opportunities like Erdogan in Turkey and Putin in Russia and Chavez in Venezuela. Leaders that were more or less freely and fairly elected at the beginning and who was quite popular, who had the opportunity to steer their country into a free and fair direction go the other way. Over a series of basically corrupt, move strategies over a decade consolidate power.
Alex Gladstein: Even more recently you’ve seen democracies go backwards in places like the Philippines, Bangladesh. These really, really big countries. Thailand had a military coup recently. That was really depressing. You’ve seen close to … In the countries, I just mentioned a billion people going backwards in the last decade which is of course really quite worrying but we know there’s quite a bit of a scholarship to show why and how this happens. The best antidote to the erosion of democracy or even the best I would say tool we can use if we want to see more free societies really checks on government powers. When you think about you encouraging constitutionalism and constitutional. When you encourage civil society and free press these things are far more important than elections. All dictators have elections of some kind. All governments do. When you talk about are a free and fair election, you can only really get there once you’ve laid the groundwork.
Alex Gladstein: We study a lot of these other things aren’t necessarily elections but are things like free speech. The ability to open a non-profit or independent media outlet. That ability to investigate politicians and corruption. These other rights and freedoms are really important and they underpin what makes up an open society.
Peter McCormack: Right okay. I would say that growing up in England I’ve left a pretty privileged life and I would say a lot of people I know whilst they’re aware and they keep an eye on the news. They’re aware of different things going on but I would say they’re more aware of extreme examples like North Korea. What is it that people don’t really understand about living under authoritarian rules and what kind of basic human rights do we have people in these kinds of countries don’t have.
Alex Gladstein: Well I’ll give you a litmus test idea and then I want to Segway into a different part of the conversation that I think I’ll help us when it comes to money. Think about it this way, can you have an amnesty international organization in your country. If you can that signals a significant … At a significant level that you have some sort of open society. If you can run a human rights group that is criticizing the government and pushing for more freedoms and you’re doing it in a way where you’re operating openly, raising money, working out of an office in the capital of that country it actually is a pretty good litmus test for which countries are free and which ones are not in terms of who has a local amnesty office. Another one interestingly is where can you do a pride parade legally without worrying about getting the crap beaten out of you. Regardless of what dictatorship it is or what religion that dictatorship has. Whether it’s Uganda or Russia or China or Cuba or Turkey, whether it’s Christian or Muslim or whatever. It doesn’t really matter.
Alex Gladstein: Authoritarian governments for whatever reason love to scapegoat gays. When you look at the pride parade you can think of it that way. Under what countries can you do a pride parade and it kind of lines up also pretty nicely with what’s an open society and what’s not. I do think what people don’t really think about too much money and I think this is a good Segway for us. We talk a lot about the separation of church and state when we talk about history right. We don’t really talk about the separation of money in the state that often. When you think about it democracies like let’s say Norway have a really strong separation of money and state. The people who decide how we’re going to print money and print more money and what the monetary policy is going to be, are not the same people sitting in the executive branch. That’s really important actually. In all dictatorships and authoritarian systems the dictator or the group of people in charge, the oligarchy whatever they get to determine the monetary policy.
Alex Gladstein: This is actually quite an important thing to look at and again it kind of helps us break down the world into different levels of how centralized power is.
Peter McCormack: In preparation I’ve been through some of your other interviews and one of the point you talk about what is very interesting you’ve, almost explained we’re at this pivotal time in human history, this battle between centralized authoritarian mass surveillance path and then there’s this other path which has kind of come as a gift which is this unknown path … Kind of unknown path of decentralization where the power is taken away from the government. Which has some kind of … If I had Bitcoin and other technologies and it’s like there are these paths battling at the moment, how do you see it?
Alex Gladstein: I want to caution against viewing that the decentralized option as somehow anarchy or the libertarian utopia type thing. I view these decentralized technologies more as a check against the surveillance state. I believe that technologies like Bitcoin, like IPFS, like decentralized access to the Internet, like zero knowledge cryptography. I’m not looking at them as ways to get to some sort of weird anarchist totally libertarian society, I’m looking at them as ways to prevent the mass surveillance state and to the check the power of the government. I think most people regardless of their ideology should understand at some level that it’s really problematic for one group or one power or one government or one cooperation to control all of our data and all of her money and all of our information. We as citizens should fight to retain some control over that. Maybe not total control but some control over that.
Alex Gladstein: Some control over our data, some control over who gets to see our location data and our health data and things like that. Really crucially for people living under dictatorships some control over our money.
Peter McCormack: The mass surveillance operates under authoritarian governments but also under democracy, right? How does it differ between the two? Say what we experience with the NSA, and say what you would experience in China?
Alex Gladstein: Well there’s a friend of mine Steve Waterhouse from Orchid Labs and he always talks about out at his hometown of London is like the most surveilled city in the world potentially. I think that’s right. Almost every country has some sort of intricate surveillance state. It’s just a matter of how advanced it is. The difference is that some countries have human rights and some don’t really at the root of it. Can your government use that surveillance state to punish political opposition? Okay, in Britain no. Pretty much no. Not in America either. However in China definitely. That’s how you have to start thinking about it. A lot of the same companies selling surveillance technology to China are also selling it to Western countries too. Everybody’s building like the big red button. It’s just a matter of how soon can you press it. In a dictatorship you can press that button already, there’s no. There’s no … We talked about the separation of money and state, there’s no separation of technology and state in China. Literally, the communist party gets to control the companies.
Alex Gladstein: The big companies like 10 cent right and all the telecoms and things like that. In America, we have this both metaphorical and geographical separation. Where we have Silicon Valley and Washington, 3,000 miles apart. Really that’s been quite helpful. You’ve got Elon Musk, and Zuckerberg and all the folks at Google and Microsoft over here on the left and then over on the right you’ve got all the politicians in DC. That’s been maybe arguably a little bit healthy to have that separation. I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to have the government, essentially a centralized authoritarian government to be I control of all the technology. That seems like a recipe for disaster.
Peter McCormack: There is still though the potential with governments to surveil using blockchain technology. That’s one of the ironies of this is that where Bitcoin was originally seen as anonymous, you can now actually track the block chains, so you can actually track people with it. Is there any example of governments using Crypto for or decentralized technology or blockchain technologies for bad?
Alex Gladstein: Yeah, let’s actually break that down a little bit. I think it would be useful for our purposes and I think just for educational purposes be a little more specific when we come to semantics and the words that we use. I go to a lot of events and people are like blockchain crypto, whatever. I don’t really know what they’re talking about. When someone says crypto what does that mean> are they talking about cryptography, cryptocurrency. Generally speaking, they’re talking about cryptocurrency but it’s some sort of made up cryptocurrency but it’s some sort of made up cryptocurrency. It’s not a specific one. when they talk about blockchain usually they’re referring to some aspects of the Bitcoin blockchain, perhaps mutability transparency, but combined with other stuff that they’re dreaming about. I really think it’s healthy for us to approach this an academic perspective and actually be specific. When it comes to the Bitcoin blockchain yeah, I believe it’s really helpful in its current state because it allows people to transact money in a way where massive financial surveillance is really difficult.
Alex Gladstein: I’m the US government, for example, I can just pick up the phone and call the Bank of America or any of these big banking conglomerates. Three dozen or so that are involved with the fed. I can say something like, “Hey I don’t like Peter let’s make sure money doesn’t go into his account.” This is censorship, this sort of thing happens. That’s just not possible with Bitcoin. Not only is there censorship resistance where collusion cannot lead to you not receiving transactions for someone but also there’s this level of anti-surveillance because it’s expensive to track real-world identities to the Bitcoin blockchain, it’s certainly doable but it’s not cheap. You have to use chain analysis and it takes time and it’s expensive. It’s certainly doable for forensically looking at a particular case where you’re trying to track like where did this money go here. When you start talking about 10,00, 50,000, 100,000 Bitcoin wallets. That’s going be very, very difficult. I like thinking about it as a protection mechanism against … Illegal mass financial surveillance.
Alex Gladstein: I also like it as a protection mechanism against targeted censorship against dissidents and other people. Whether it’s human rights NGOs or whatever. Vladimir Putin Russia can shut down the bank account of an NGO, but he can’t stop them from receiving Bitcoin. The Iranian government can monitor the bank accounts of certain people connected to the opposition and freeze then when certain money comes in from their families, but they cannot stop them from receiving Bitcoin. I think it’s quite revolutionary in this aspect. Now, how can other blocks chain technologies that are not big coin be used against people? I think in a lot of ways. When you start introducing the concept of a blockchain that has a backdoor that’s somehow centralized where the records can be edited post facto, then you get the government’s really excited. You’ve got the Petro, the world’s first national ICO arguably in Venezuela. It’s not operational but you can see what they had wanted to do.
Alex Gladstein: Their goal was hopefully they were thinking let’s get over but using this so we can track all the money and freeze it when we want to. The Iranians, Saudis and Chinese are all going to be coming up with something similar in the next year or two. We’re talking about national cryptocurrencies that are totally surveillable, trackable, freezable. It’s like the wet dream for dictators. We really need to separate out what we’re talking about when me speak about blockchains. Really it comes down to is there a backdoor or not. Speaking to folks that [inaudible 00:25:34] as well and I think this is a pretty exciting project. I think you can be open-minded towards a lot of different technologies in this area. I think Bitcoin is one that civil rights activists should be quite excited about. I think it is something that deserves a lot of attention.
Alex Gladstein: Can we have a relatively pretty much decentralized stable coin that people can use and interact with without government interference. I’ve talked to several experts in the fields and they’ve basically said there’s no real clear way for a government to stop and make a die transaction. That’s cool. That’s what’s interesting. When we talk about blockchains and decentralization, sure there might be a lot of market financial smart contract innovations in the future that are useful for fields like real estate, I mean, who knows. I’m interested in censorship resistance because I’m a human rights activists. I’m interested in helping people who have under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes who live under broken financial systems where they can’t interact and transact freely without heavy surveillance and censorship.
Peter McCormack: There’s a couple of things I want to unpack first and I want to go back a couple steps. Firstly, what did you, therefore, make of the sanctioning of the two Bitcoin addresses which kind of seems a bit silly because you can bounce things around. It seems to me that was almost like the only way the US government could sensor Bitcoin was … Addresses are under sanctions. What did you make of that?
Alex Gladstein: Well I think it shows you that at least right now Bitcoin is a technology that can actually be useful for governments if they’re doing a forensic investigation, fraud and corruption. Generally speaking, I would say it’s not a hot idea if you want to launder money through Bitcoin right now, large amounts. Seems like you’re probably going to get caught when you eventually move that they coin into some other asset class. It kind of shows you that at least right now actually it’s kind of like a neat tool that governments can use for specific investigations. Again I think it makes broad-based financial surveillance really impractical which is really cool but right now in its current form where it’s not really a privacy technology yet. I do believe it will become a privacy technology over the next couple years both on-chain and through user technology wallets, second layer technology. Right now, it’s something that governments can actually use to track down large-scale criminal behaviour. Which may be a good thing.
Alex Gladstein: Now when you talk about these two guys who were tracked down. I mean obviously, they just weren’t really practising good operational security. You don’t have to use the same … you’re not supposed to use an address every time for many, many, many, many, many transactions, it’s obvious. If you’re talking about someone living in authoritarian or oppressed society. Yeah, we’re going to have to teach them good [inaudible 00:28:34]. That’s obvious to me. Otherwise, people are going to get caught. I was talking to some Venezuelans who are in the space I at least don’t know or they don’t know if anyone has been arrested in Venezuela by chain analysis yet. The Venezuelan government from what we understand isn’t doing that yet. But is the Chinese government doing I? I don’t know. Is the American government doing it? Definitely. I think it just matters about how savvy and how much resources governments have to spend.
Alex Gladstein: Again, anyway the lessons from the Iranian fiasco is that dissidence and activists and journalists are going to have to use good OBSEC when they’re using technologies like Bitcoin. B, right now in its current form Bitcoin seems to be something that may protect against the legal mask surveillance but may actually benefit nation states when it comes to doing forensic investigations on particular cases.
Peter McCormack: You would support then full privacy with the Bitcoin base chain because not everyone would … Like there are people I’ve spoken to who think this might be the next civil war but similar to the scathing workers. Not everybody wants full privacy, some people will like the fact that you can track everything on the blockchain.
Alex Gladstein: Some people do but those people don’t live in dictatorships. I view Bitcoin as a liberation tool, I don’t view it as a convenience for people who live in San Francisco and New York. We have a working financial system. I think it’s a liberation tool for people who live under broken financial systems and repressed corrupt environments. I hoped that it becomes a privacy coin. But it may not be. You’re right. That’s obviously something that’s going to be achieved by consensus across the Bitcoin ecosystem, so we can’t really know. But I would say that it does seem that a lot of the core developers and people who hold a lot of Bitcoin and people who care a lot about Bitcoin do care about privacy, to care about rights and freedoms, and I would be shocked, again, if in the next couple of years if on-chain private transactions become possible.
Peter McCormack: Okay. I just want to back up a step. When was it you joined the Human Rights Foundation?
Alex Gladstein: 2007.
Peter McCormack: 2007, right. So, that’s pre-Bitcoin. At what point did you discover Bitcoin, and when was the Aha moment where it changed everything? You were like, “Okay, this is a tool that could seriously help us?
Alex Gladstein: Let’s zoom out a little bit to just look at technology in human rights briefly. Through our work, we encountered why technology was going to be a game-changing part of the struggle for human rights, and this is going to become increasingly the fact as we move forward into the future. Everybody’s got a phone, right? Or nearly everybody has got a phone. Is it a liberation tool or is it a mass surveillance tracking device? That’s a great question, right? And when we started working with activists 2007, ’08, ’09, ’10 around the world bringing them together, we discovered that they had, generally speaking, not very much fluency with information security. We actually started with bringing in people from organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to help teach them about how they could stay safe online, how they could use things like BPMs, how they could encrypt their communications and how they could even, more broadly, just be a little more safe about the information they were sharing.
Alex Gladstein: Digital hygiene is not a new press, right? It’s a lifestyle choice; I know you’ve talked to Jameson and other people in the OPSEC field about this, right?
Peter McCormack: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alex Gladstein: But it’s a series of many decisions you have to make that you over time, change the way you behave. We started doing that with civil society organizers and independent journalists and dissidents in closed societies because, for them, it’s vitally important. I mean I remember one year we had an Angolan dissident; this was before Dos Santos stepped aside, maybe six years ago. He was investigating generals in Angola who were involved in diamond, oil corruption, and his computer was acting a little funny and he brought it to the Oslo Freedom Forum and we had a couple of people who were working with the tour project in EFF; we sat down with him, they were looking at his computer and they were like, “What the heck is going on here?” They basically figured out that one of the companies he was investigating connected with these generals hired someone to spear-fish him, and basically were taking screenshots of his work every minute or two or something like that. That’s why it was running slow. They figured this out, and it was actually … I remember PC Mag did a big special on it because he was using a Mac and it was a big vulnerability that was exposed.
Alex Gladstein: A couple of other computing outlets also reported on this. It ended up being on the cover of News Week in I think, June 2013 in this looking at White hat versus Black hat hacker types, right? The Human Rights Foundation tries to recruit as many white hats types as we can and work with them. It was about that time that we started working with Wicker, an encrypted communications platform and also started to attend the Death Con, which we do every year. So, we’re always trying to recruit people on this space you want to help. Not only have we been using Wicker and Trans-License 2013, but we’ve also created almost a hotline for the activists in our network when they have a particular information security question, we can pair them with someone who can help them. These are some of the things we were doing earlier on. Then, personally, I started learning about Bitcoin in 2013.
Alex Gladstein: I didn’t start really diving into it and achieving a respect and an understanding of it until maybe early to mid-2017, and that was because some of the companies that we were working with that wanted to help us were in that cryptocurrency and blockchain space, so at the Oslo Freedom Forum every year we bring together … This is our summit that the Human Rights Foundation produces, we bring together dissidents and activists in Norway with industry leaders from all different fields. We have a big focus on technology and focus from Google, Twitter, YouTube and all these companies would come, and we actually started getting interest from Bit Fury, Consensus and these companies started to come on and help us to do really neat things and do education. As we started to get more involved with them I realized, wow I should really try to learn more about this and I fell down the rabbit hole. I guess a little less than three years ago, and really fell in about a year and a half ago.
Alex Gladstein: I had a cursory knowledge about it and was aware but certainly didn’t realize that it was being used by people in authoritarian contexts. Until somewhat recently, and that’s been the driving force in me learning more about it, talking to people about it and trying to share this knowledge with other people.
Peter McCormack: We often hear about use cases in Venezuela and maybe Zimbabwe, but realistically, you probably know more than anyone. How much is crypt actually being used in authoritarian regimes?
Alex Gladstein: If you think about it, as far as we can understand from certain websites that do analysis on Bitcoin and the crypto transactions, it appears that something like 30, 40 million people might be a maximum estimate of the number of people that have interacted with cryptocurrencies and Bitcoins so far. Some people say less, some people say more, but clearly, we’re less than 1%, right? They’re fast swabs almost the entire planet of course where people don’t know anything about this stuff. I think we’re very early, but what we’re seeing is some obvious adoption in areas where the financial system is broken. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Obviously, we talked about Venezuela; I’ll share a couple of details though about what’s happening there now. In the last couple of months and even a few days, Venezuela government I guess has set up a system where they’re trying to monitor the IP addresses of people interacting and signing into their bank accounts.
Alex Gladstein: They’ve basically issued an order to banks in Venezuela to prevent people from accessing their bank accounts if they’re abroad, right. They’re going to dramatically lengths to do this. It’s not easy anymore; it hasn’t been, for a long time, to send money to your family there, right? All these services that are set up to do this, some people literally send Western Union to a bank in Colombia and their family walks across the border and go gets it and bring the cash back into Venezuela, which seems so paroles. Yes, it is actually, according to some Venezuelans I work with, quite effective to send a text or make a call, ask for a little bit of Bitcoin, a few minutes later get it in your wallet, and then go to a Craigslist-style exchange like a local Bitcoin.com type thing where you coordinate via WhatsApp or some other messenger and make an exchange of that into Fiat or whatever else you want. That is actually one of the better ways to get money into Venezuela today.
Alex Gladstein: That’s certainly an area where people are using it. I mean, obviously, you’ve heard other are bringing crypto and Bitcoin into … Bitcoin specifically into the Venezuelan ecosystem through mining because the energy is cheap, right? It’s nearly free, so you’ve got a lot of grad students or whatever you’ve been mining Bitcoin and then using it, and some of them are using it to escape. I mean, this just general concept that you could flee into a different country with all of your value intact on your phone on a hot wallet or a flash drive, cold storage or even just memorized in your head. It’s pretty revolutionary; people didn’t have in history until now. I think we have to look at what is cash, and cash is privacy and free speech and the world is becoming cashless, and I think Bitcoin does start to give us an idea of how we can create digital money where we start to preserve some of the things that cash once allowed us to have.
Alex Gladstein: You’ve seen some of this happen in Venezuela; I was talking to a company in Nigeria, they’re called BuyCoins, and I was asking them some questions there and it’s a massive country in Central West Africa that’s probably going to be larger than the United States in population in 40 years. I mean, this is a huge country, and they’re a really big market for China, right? This guy I was talking to was basically saying that the reason why there’s so much crypto adoption in Nigeria, and he said 93% roughly of the crypto is all Bitcoin. He was saying actually the value proposition, the reason why people were doing it was for commerce; was to do business with Chinese companies that were reaching the limits of their capital controls: these import/export businesses selling and buying things in Nigeria, they reach a limit and then they do Bitcoin on the side. It was really interesting to hear.
Alex Gladstein: He said, of course, there’s a lot of speculation, a lot of people who would do Forex now are doing crypto trading and there’s a lot of really smart software engineers, tons of them in Nigeria and they’re keyed in on this as well. But he said the number one reason why people are using crypto is actually that commerce function which was fascinating to me. I mean, you think about places that have strict rules about who can have money and who can’t, so I have a friend, her name Raya Mapub, and she’s an Afghan technology CEO. So, in Afghanistan obviously women are treated legally and socially is less than men, so she tries to challenge this by creating a software company where she would hire women, and teach them how to code, and contribute and make money. Then, she faces this issue of, well, how do I pay them? Whereby a lot of software is sanctioned because it’s Afghanistan. If she gives them cash, their husbands, brothers and uncles will take it from them or prevent them from opening a bank account. They don’t want them to be financially free.
Alex Gladstein: She started paying in Bitcoin and they had on their phones and it was, give them financial freedom which was really interesting. She even said that one of them, a couple of years ago, had to flee Afghanistan because of political threats and she brought her Bitcoin with her through this paroles journey through around Turkey, made in Europe; made in Germany, and then luckily over that time her Bitcoin had appreciated dramatically and then she was able to use it: exchanged into fiat money and started a new life in Germany, so that was pretty impressive. Then, I spoke to some folks in China. I was in Taiwan recently for an event that we did there, and we got to talk to quite a few people who go back and forth regularly into China, and they say they use Bitcoin to basically transact and bring money in and out of the country in a way where they don’t really want the government to see.
Alex Gladstein: These are not criminals, these are activists; these are people who are doing educational work. So, I think no matter where you are you’re seeing some serious adoption for some really interesting reasons.
Peter McCormack: What is holding back that bigger widespread adoption?
Alex Gladstein: Usability, education. I mean, it’s hard. You have to be savvy. If you’re a grad student mining for Bitcoin in Venezuela, that is very non-trivial; its figure out how to do that. Even to figure out how to accept Bitcoin and to use some sort of Craigslist-style exchange to turn it into fiat money, these things are hard. I was even talking to a guy in Iran that I met on Twitter and we talked on an encrypted line and he’s a young guy there and he was telling that in Iran there are stores or places you can go to meet up with people and exchange stuff, good services for Bitcoin. This is happening and Iran is also not as bad as Venezuela but is an hyper-inflationary death spiral where the currency keeps value against the rest of the world’s currency. Especially in places like that, as volatile as Bitcoin is, it’s still a really powerful tool. Basically, you’re seeing challenges, I think, mainly in not just usability, I guess, in design and ease of use but also in education.
Alex Gladstein: There’s just not a lot of Bitcoin educational materials in different languages. There’s some and it’s growing and it’s admirable and we should do more, but it’s certainly not enough. I also think that from an education perspective, the conflation problem I mentioned earlier is a big one. I don’t know, if you’re going to write a book about physics or chemistry, you’re going to take an academic perspective; you’re going to look at the whole thing, you’re going to even-hand it, right? That’s not really how people are; everybody’s got an agenda with the world of cryptocurrency, right? to be fair, a book about it that you would give to somebody in a place like Iran or Venezuela or China should absolutely start with the technology behind Bitcoin. The history of the technology behind Bitcoin, the decades of cryptography and different advances in these different fields that led to the creation of Bitcoin. Chapter two, why did this person create Bitcoin? Well, they left us some clues? What social problems were they trying to solve? How did it work in its early days?
Alex Gladstein: Chapter three, broader adoption. Maybe chapter four, then you start talking about, well, people started making … The realization maybe they could create decentralised computing and other things. Basically, people right now are skipping chapters’ one through four, and they’re just coming into these places and saying, “Let’s talk about smart contracts.” I just feel like it’s such a massive mistake to not have everybody at least have a good understanding of why Bitcoin was created and why it continues to work really well. Why. That should be done in a very even-handed educational way, and that text and those resources should be spread around the world including with about how to do your own good OPSEC. I think there needs to be a world-class effort to do this. They’re very, very important.
Peter McCormack: The reason I’m smiling is I’ve got a website and I’m always getting asked by people how to get into crypto, and I’m always saying, “Look, it’s not an easy thing.” So, I put a thing on my website; it was a step-by-step guide, and it’s probably not the same structure as you have. But I’ve got step one: watch. It’s about an introduction to Bitcoin. They go on Twitter and follow Andreas, then follow his YouTube and watch his videos, then watch banking on Bitcoin. Then, step two is read. I’ve got a thing in the British case for Bitcoin, and I’ve got Nathaniel Papa’s book, and then I’ve got an Andreas book. Then three, I’ve got listen, I’ve got a specific podcast, and then four is content they just subscribed to. Then five finally, sign up here and go and buy some. I’m with you; you can’t … It’s not Something like when you a microwave you can just read about it and turn it on and it instantly starts making food. It takes a long time.
Alex Gladstein: One day it will probably work like that, right? Right now you’re right it’s super nontrivial, to learn about it and implement it and certainly not trivial to use it; that’s super confusing. I think that people need to just understand it’s not something you can read cliff notes on, it’s something like physics or chemistry or whatever where you have to study it for years to gain a really good understanding of it, or at least six to eight months, right? And you have to invest your time in it. So, rather than buy Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency, I think it’s much smarter for people to invest their time and understanding of how it works. It would be so much more valuable for you. Look, the markets may go up and down but your understanding of this technology will be so helpful for you in the future because you’ll be at the edge; you’ll know more about it than other folks. In most industries, if you were to take the next six to eight months, really study this and understand how it works, you’re going to be able to walk into almost any company, government agency and know more than everybody about it.
Alex Gladstein: It’s really a great time to do this, especially in places or in fields where you’re interacting with people who really need it. I think that’s what it all comes down to is a lot of the dismissals, and criticisms and attacks of Bitcoin come from people who have the luxury of having a stable financial system where they can have easy access to capital and where they actually trust their banks and governments. You can laugh but even within the United States or Britain, you pretty much trust your bank and government not to steal your money and to actually provide depositor insurance, things like that. Even in Venezuela, Zimbabwe or Somaliland, you’re not definitely not trusting your government with money, right? So, this is the big difference and I guess this is why I’ve just gotten so fascinated by this because I work with so many people in these countries, and I see the clear need for them to have some sort of control over their money.
Peter McCormack: But one of the things is quite interesting I find quite fascinating is there are so many different used cases for Bitcoin. You’ve explained a bunch of examples from here, people in different authority and regimes or under different circumstances. That kind of banking the unbanked became a bit of say; is it really happening. But you’ve just given me a great example with Afghanistan. Another great example I had was a totally westernized version where I was with the guys in San Francisco called Wire, whereby if you want to transfer money, say you are Forex company; you want to transfer money from the UK to Australia, bank-to-bank, it will take a few days and there are high fees. What they do, they do an over-the-counter trade in Bitcoin in both countries and just deposit in the banks, so they can do it within six hours for something like $75; it doesn’t matter how much you send.
Peter McCormack: What seems to be the common factor is that Bitcoin, it takes away with the rules. You can create your own set of rules whether it’s your company in San Francisco sending money to a company in Australia or somebody in Afghanistan wanting to create a business to allow women to earn money. It just breaks down all the rules, right?
Alex Gladstein: Yeah. I think in the way that it reintroduces peer-to-peer nature of money, which has been basically ripped out of our societies in many cases in urban areas. Still, in rural areas in most countries in the world people still, of course, use cash but, especially in places like China and elsewhere, people are increasingly using things like WePay, EarlyPay for everything. When you go rural China and you’re walking on the streets, and my friends who are journalists there are reporting back that even in very, very rural areas you’re using your phone with a QR code functionality to give a beggar money or buy a mango. This is happening; this, I guess, we would call it intermediation or … Where they’re inserting other parties between you and the person you’re interacting with. Instead of handing somebody a $20 bill and it being peer-to-peer, you’re scanning it on a QR code and there are three or four banks that it goes through before it reaches the other people, even though they’re standing right in front of you.
Alex Gladstein: So, with Bitcoin, it reintroduces the peer-to-peer nature of monetary transactions. I think that’s a pretty fundamental thing which we can build on top of, and a point I’d like to make I guess is that I view Bitcoin as one of many technologies that will help us build a centralized future. It’s very important and maybe even the fundamental one, but it needs other things to be truly helpful to people. Like it needs decentralized on-ramps and off-ramps, it needs censorship resistant access to the internet; it needs privacy technology and people who are implementing that. If you have an ecosystem where you’re excited about using Bitcoin, you probably also want an ecosystem where you’re excited about having some sort control over your local and health data, and these are things that may not necessarily be block-chain related but they certainly will be encryption related in some way. Yeah, I find looking at future in the next few years where I’m doing point-of-sale just buying and selling stuff and I’m using lightning or something running an app that’s using that.
Alex Gladstein: I’m also trying to think about how can I take better control of my personal data and what technologies are going to help me do that. I do view Bitcoin as one of the most important, if not the most important technology, in this decentralized area, or if you want to call it anti-authoritarian technologies that will actually help promote civil liberties. I think this is something people should really think about. What’s interesting to me is it presents a very appealing perhaps investment strategy. People talk about clean tech, head tech and health tech. Well, why not demo tech or democracy tech where you’re investing in technologies that are going to make civil liberties stronger and help things like privacy and user data, and at the same time potentially get very wealthy doing it over the next 10 years. You look at Andreessen Horowitz, they have a $300 million crypto fund, and their first investment was in a company that’s working on encrypting user data for various applications.
Alex Gladstein: I mean, that’s cool; I mean, will that fund do well? Probably; should more people be doing that? Yes; should people even be saying it’s like an impact investing thing? Definitely; and why aren’t they doing that? I’m not sure, but it’s something I’d like to see more of.
Peter McCormack: Dem tech is not a term I’ve heard, right? So, let’s popularize it.
Alex Gladstein: I’ve got a bunch of speaking engagements over the next few months where I’ve been asked to actually talk about that. So hopefully we can start to chip in and make a difference. Look, at one point there was no such thing as clean tech or green tech, about 70 years ago people got together and said, “Hey, all these companies that are reducing energy consumption or whatever, they don’t really have anything to do with one other per se but we’re going to put a cluster around them and just say, “Hey, this cleantech. Let’s just go to different family foundations and CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility arms and funds, and even things like mutual funds and universities and things like that and say, “Hey, you can take a certain percentage of your investment strategy and try to make the world better through here. Now, what I want to do is just add another option for people to actually improve civil liberties in addition to making the world better through education, and healthcare and saving the environment.
Alex Gladstein: I think how fundamental, this goes back to the beginning of our conversation, but civil liberties are so critical for all of these things. You want a more fair healthcare system, you want to prevent pollution, you want to have a higher minimum wage, you’re going to need civil liberties for your ability to write an article in, the paper asking for this for your ability to march and protest for these things. Without civil liberties, we’ve lost everything: our ability to make any aspect of our lives better. They’re so fundamental that it strikes me as quite an urgent thing, and I feel like, loosely transatlantic bipartisan way, that no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on that you’re probably worried about authoritarianism in some way, whether you’re worried about populistic authoritarianism or you’re worried about Facebook and Google having all your data or you’re worried about the government getting really big. No matter what your worry is, we can probably all get behind the idea that civil liberties are good.
Alex Gladstein: I do feel like this thing can catch on, especially as we’re watching what happens when we don’t do anything about it. Unfortunately, we don’t have to run a thought experiment. We watch what’s happening in China where there is no separation of money in the state, no separation of technology in the state and people are building this horrifying Orwellian system where your behaviours are now turning into a way for the government to score you. It’s not this national myth that sometimes you read about, but it’s definitely something the Chinese government is trying to do at the local level through various experiments: municipal and corporate by starting to track people and score them so that they can, instead of needing to enforce their rule by violence, legitimize and prop up their rule by people self-censoring each other and by being loyal citizens and being in a competition to be who can be the most loyal citizen. It’s absolutely brilliant and it’s terrifying, and it’s only made possible by highly centralized technology. That’s one future.
Peter McCormack: It’s Black Mirror.
Alex Gladstein: Well, maybe it’s not quite Black Mirror but it’s, in some cases, even more horrifying than that. They’ve got … This is a government that’s using the best technology to put a million Muslims in prison camps, possibly even two, according to the US State Department: 2 million people. We don’t really know; there’s no independent journalism there, it’s still opaque, it’s hard to understand. But we’ve got the vision. We can go down that centralized road where the government has total control over everything and starts owning all of your interactions, whether they’d be communication, financial, behavioural, etcetera. That’s not a future I want to go down. Now, it’s not a dystopia; it’s the reality for more than a billion people, so let’s assume it can’t happen to us, but we’ve got to fight it, and I think the only way to fight it is with a healthy mix of technology.
Alex Gladstein: I think as Wai Dai once said, all governments no matter who they are they’ll try to take freedom from their people, and so rather than convince them not to do that, let’s build technology that makes that impossible. I would say half the strategy is building technology that can a check or a challenge to the surveillance state, but the other half is just old school political campaigning and old-school human rights advocacy. We need both public campaigns to put pressure and to force companies and governments to adopt pro-privacy policies and technologies, and we also need to encourage people to build the tech that will make it impossible to have the Orwellian state. A good example of the policy would be like … Or I’m currently living in Oakland I’m not from here; I … Recently, but in Oakland, California, the local city has a citizen oversight board over the local city authorities with regard to the surveillance equipment they can purchase.
Alex Gladstein: The citizens have some sort of check mechanism over this, and there’s been a lot of obviously bad incidence in Oakland of police violence and things like that, so the citizens have come together, and they’ve seen things like … I guess a couple of years ago, the police were basically … They have these surveillance cameras at intersections, and they were just filming every single license plate as it came through every single intersection and they were just storing this data in the backroom somewhere and they were never getting rid of it. It’s insane. Now, there’s a bit of citizen oversight on that. I think there should be a citizen privacy board in every city, in every country, right? Maybe that’s something. Do I trust federal regulators to regulate technology correctly? No. But there’s got to be some sort of citizen-powered policy check that we can have in conjunction with our efforts to build technology that’s more difficult to manipulate.
Alex Gladstein: Just to add one more thing, I think a really good example of this is that once a user base of technology becomes interested enough in something, maybe a company will go that way. For example, encrypted end-to-end messaging: Facebook and WhatsApp no matter your criticism of how they implemented it didn’t have to go that way, right? They were pressured to in a certain way to offer that service for their people; for their clients, right? I think this can work.
Peter McCormack: A couple of important questions I have for you then. Surveillance state, what do you say to people then, for example, MI6 in the UK will say we’ve stopped 38 terrorist attacks in the last year. What do you say to that?
Alex Gladstein: I’m a big fan of counter-terrorism and of governments protecting people. I don’t think massive illegal surveillance is necessary to do that. I think they can do it with investigative professional policing. You even look at books like history when it comes to counter terrorism in the Middle East, one of my favourite books is The Looming Tower, which the history of a really prominent FBI agent and Osama Bin Laden; it traces their lives. It just shows you that what’s effective is old school police work: the investigation into particular cases, we have close collaboration between different intelligence agencies and you’re building out a case and you’re prosecuting people in specific ways. What’s not helpful is broad-based illegal surveillance; it’s just not very helpful. I don’t think the MI6 or CIA or FBI needs this to protect us.
Peter McCormack: Then the last thing, I want to go to Dem tech. I think that’s really interesting and it’s really spiked my interest and I’ll tell you why. Is that as much as the technology is great, there are so many people involved in Bitcoin who just want the price to go up. It’s usually the people living in the places that don’t really need Bitcoin, so they want an ETF, they want Wall street adoption which are very difficult things to happen when realistically you’ve got a potential customer base of 4 billion here who could be using the tech straight away and you can support that tomorrow. A group of people can come together and build a website that educates and teaches people how to do this now.
Alex Gladstein: Yeah, and look I’ve had conversations with a bunch of different companies that are … That realize this and are thinking about it very carefully they’re already starting to figure out how to do this. I truly believe that the impact of Bitcoin and perhaps other cryptocurrencies in the next decade is going to be for people who don’t have working banking systems. I think the killer app is money, Bitcoin specifically and I think that peer to peer, commerce and remittances and even aid is going to be something that really changes the world. I do think some of these big companies are realizing that. As part of a gen tech strategy, I think you’ve got to look in investing in Bitcoin infrastructure, both on the user side, the wallet side, the app side and then of course behind the scenes too.
Alex Gladstein: Whether it’s a Koala company or a particular on-ramp or a decentralized payment network like lightning or something like that. These are all really important things for the wider adoption of Bitcoin in these places. I would also say that when it comes something like Dem tech; something that, again, goes back to our original conversation but something your listeners should think about is the fact that when we talk about impact investing which is on the spectrum of making a pure investment on the spectrum of making a pure gift, it’s the idea that, “Hey, in the middle of somewhere, we can invest money in a particular type of cause that we may take a slightly lower return but we’ll make the world better, right?” Well, this whole industry is steered by the sustainable development goals of the United Nations, so this’ the north star of the impact investors. The thing is, of the 17 UN sustainable developments goals, the word democracy is mentioned zero times, the word privacy is mentioned zero times, the word journalism is mentioned zero times, the word ‘separation of powers’ is mentioned zero times. Human rights and corruption are barely mentioned.
Alex Gladstein: I mean, this is an authoritarian document written up by governments to figure out what do we globally work on without threatening our own power. When you look at some of the governments that were involving the STGs, Assad’s government in Syria helped to draft these things in 2012 while they were in the middle of massacring all their people, right? It’s pretty crazy when you actually look at it, and then you look at this document which looks so nice and fuzzy and warm from the outside. When you actually look at it carefully, it’s a very authoritarian document that’s meant not to pose a threat to any political power around the world. Centralized political power is a huge problem. There are more people living under authoritarianism than there are, combined, people who don’t have access to clean drinking water, who live on less than $2 a day, who are subject to war or natural disasters or who are refugees. There are just more people living under repression than all those things combined, and yet you never hear about it, it’s always the elephant in the room. But here’s our opportunity to make a difference.
Alex Gladstein: We cannot just do gifts and donations which are really important, and I really encourage your listeners to find a non-profit they liked whether it’s, I’ll be shameless, The Human Rights Foundation or something like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Amnesty or whatever they like. Go do that and support that; that’s very important. But at the same time, human investment strategies consider a new portfolio or fund that’s going to only look at technologies that are going to support privacy and civil liberties. I think that’s going to be really important, or else we’re headed down the road to the we-chat future.
Peter McCormack: The last couple of things I want to ask you about is, I’m not as exposed to as much of what goes on in the world as you have. You’ve obviously exposed to a lot of negativity, but I guess you’ve also exposed a lot of positive things happening. Where is your balance between hope and despair in the moment?
Alex Gladstein: That’s a tough one. Look, people often describe attending one of our Oslo Freedom Forum events as very emotional, very cathartic; it’s like a rollercoaster because you hear these really depressing stories, and you’re just shouting in your mind why can’t we help these people more. But at the end of the day, it’s really healthy. After you attend these events and you listen to the struggles that people are going through, you get very fired up, and I think it does two things: A, it educates you, it provides you with an opportunity to learn about how you can help people less fortunate than you, who don’t have access to these rights that you have, and B, it also makes you I think more appreciative and vigilant about the rights that you do have. I think being part of this community that HRF has built and learned more about things like what’s happening in Cameroon and Burma and North Korea will actually probably end up making you a more active citizen whatever your life, and that provides me with great hope that we have this dual impact on people.
Alex Gladstein: I think the thing that keeps me going is hearing these stories from these activists and journalists that I came into contact with and just how persistent they are. I mean, you’ve got people who’ve done things that you wouldn’t believe for just the hope of a tiny fraction of the rights that we take for granted every day. You’ve escaped from North Korea and dragged themselves 6,000 miles on crutches to freedom just for the right to have control over their destiny and decide what they want to do with their career. You’ve got women that have escaped from Afghanistan just so they can have some sort of control over their finances. You’ve got people escaping from Venezuela just so they can feed their family. You’ve got people who, again, will sacrifice everything for the tiniest little fraction of the rights and freedoms that we enjoy in places like the United Kingdom and South Korea, Japan and many other places around the world.
Alex Gladstein: When you witness their hope I think and their persistence, it’s quite inspiring and it leads you to want to keep at it, I think.
Peter McCormack: You mentioned North Korea, right? We discussed previously they’ve got a conference coming up. What do you make of that?
Alex Gladstein: Yeah, we should touch on this. I actually had a meeting with the South Korean government today about this. They wanted to learn more about what I was thinking with the Human Right Foundation thought about this effort. But essentially in spring, it appears maybe in April, the North Korean government is going to host a block-chain conference. Immediately I’m thinking of a couple of different things here, A, it’s generally about a year ago to North Korea, you’re going to see a Potemkin Village that’s very carefully curated, you’re going to spend a lot of money and it’s going to line the pockets of the bloodthirsty brutal regime that keeps hundreds of thousands of people in prison camps and starves and murders and rapes its population. Generally not a good idea to support them and you’re not going to actually get a chance to go and interact with “real North Koreans.” You’re only going to talk to a very highly choreographed group of people who the regime approves of and who are deeply loyal to the Kim dynasty.
Alex Gladstein: Basically, in North Korea, there are more than 50 casts, so in India, you’ve heard there are the untouchables and the Broman’s or whatever, right? In North Korea, there’s actually more than 50 of these social levels loosely grouped into loyal, wavering and hostile. They’re actually geographically distributed. The most loyal people live Pyongyang and the other urban areas, and it goes from there to where the most disloyal hostile people live in the deserts, mountains, whatever. When you go Pyongyang, you’re literally going to meet the most loyal people, the 1% of the 1%. So, the idea that you’re going to convince them to change their lifestyle is pretty unlikely. Again you’re providing … The government official I met with today said something like €3,000 to do this thing. That’s money they need; that’s a hard currency that they desperately need, so you’re giving them something they want. Now, what’s going to happen when you get there? You’re like, “Screw it. I feel like I can make a difference.”
Alex Gladstein: So, you show up in Pyongyang, they’re going to take you around and make you bow down to the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il, and they’re going to take you around to a bunch of very important North Koreans historical sites and they’re going to treat you to a bunch of feats while everybody around you is starving. Then eventually you’re going to come to a meeting where you’re going to sit down and talk about block-chain, and they’re basically going to stare at you and say, “How can we benefit?” Really, you’ve gone all the way around the world to Pyongyang to sit down with these mass murders and you’re going to actually give them advice? The whole thing seems so misguided, and I would really encourage anyone who listens to this to not go; to boycott this. One of the most powerful things I saw when I was in South Africa recently, we had started running a conference there, and you just go to the Apartheid Museum. When you go to that room where it shows you how powerful it was that sports stars, music stars, businesses and the Olympic boycotted the Apartheid because it was evil.
Alex Gladstein: It made such a big difference; it took a long time, but it made a huge difference. I ask people, “Well, how much better is the North Korean regime?” I’d argue it’s a lot worse. Why should they be allowed to compete in the Olympics? Why should they get your business? Why should you go to Pyongyang and give them your advice on how they can build blockchains? Don’t do it. Now, on the engineering side, well, what kind of block-chains do you really think they’re going to try and build? Do you think that they’d be of some decentralized money network that no essential party can control appeals to them? Of course not. They’re going to want to try to build some sort of surveillance block-chain where they can more effectively track the movements of their people. Is that possible or does that even make sense from an engineering perspective? I don’t know, probably not. But they’re certainly going to try, and all the people who go are going to be party to this.
Alex Gladstein: I really hope this thing falls flat on its face. There’s no reason … If you want to help the Koreans people, build cool block-chains stuff, go to South Korea.
Peter McCormack: Yeah. I’ve also heard there’s quite a lot of block-chain work happening out in Saudi Arabia. What’s going on there? Because I don’t know anything about it.
Alex Gladstein: Well, I think you have to look at the media. Smart people can read the press; they can see that this is a dictatorship that has shown no compassion about murdering journalists like Jamal Kashogi, that participates in a brutal war in Yemen that’s been massacring untold numbers of civilians, that has been torturing the female activists who are merely fighting for their own right to drive. You’ve got bigwigs from all different kinds of corporations going to Saudi Arabia to talk about financial innovation, and you’ve got companies for example Ripple or IBM even going to Saudi Arabia to build payment infrastructure and so-called Smart Cities. I think that the next six months are going to be really important. Are these companies going to continue working with the Saudi dictatorship or are they going to pull out and make a stand?
Alex Gladstein: There was a big financial summit there a few weeks ago where CEOs of Siemens and Uber pulled out and it was clear that maybe the corporate world could actually make a stand where our governments have been miserably failing. But we’ll see. There is a big block-chain summit coming up in Saudi Arabia I think in February. Will all those speakers remain on the roster? Are they actually going to go there right now? Is that thing going to actually happen in the wake of the murder of Kashogi and torture of these activists and the war in Yemen? These people are actually going to go to Saudi Arabia and try to help … Just brutal government build block-chain surveillance systems? I think we need to take a stand and I think this is where that begins, not just in Venezuela, not just in China. I don’t think your company should be building the infrastructure for Muslim internment camps, and I don’t think your companies should be building the future of block-chain surveillance cities for the Saudi government so that they can basically lock up and punish or crucify or whatever they do people who they don’t agree with.
Alex Gladstein: Normally when a company does business with Saudi Arabia, they try to sweep it under the rug; they try not to be proud about it. it’s not like you have Halliburton going around and being all proud about its new Saudi contract; no, they’re trying to sweep it under the rag. So, why is block-chain different? Why is IBM excited about doing business with the Saudi government? Why is Ripple really proud of this? What’s the difference? I think the difference is in the industry; the difference is that there are no morals when it comes to this. The difference is that people are excited to accept an invitation to go talk about crypto in Saudi Arabia. So, people in the ecosystem need to make a difference; the people in the ecosystem just start taking a stand and start being a little more careful about what they’re building. I think that’s really key point that’s very important.
Peter McCormack: Right. Okay. Wow. My last question for you is. So, this is going to go out next week, and quite interestingly I’ve got an interview also going out with Vijay Boyapati. He wrote a very good piece called the Bullish Case for Bitcoin, why it’s important, the history of money, why it’s good money, why it’s hard money. But under the … As I said to you with this, there is … I care about everything you said about but I’m very spiked in interests by the Dem tech side of things. I’m trying to keep away from money and I’m trying to keep away towards the benefit of the technology. A great way to finish would just be … that tell the listeners of my podcast why they should care about Bitcoin outside of making money themselves, and why they really should care about that?
Alex Gladstein: I think your listeners should put themselves in the shoes of someone who lives under an authoritarian regime, where all their movements are being tracked and watched. What a revelation; what a lifeline would it be to be able to so repetitiously download a very soft, lightweight program onto your phone and be able to receive a file which gives you the ability to go buy things and transact, or even just save it for a future use, or even memorize some sort of phrase that you can use later to recover this file and use that to feed your family or save for the future. This is really what Bitcoin is able to do. Yes, it’s money; yes, the money thing is really important, but ultimately I think it’s a liberation tool to give people who live under authoritarian or repressive or financial surveillance systems the ability to take their life into their hands a little bit and start making their own decisions.
Alex Gladstein: I think this is entirely unconnected in some ways from the price. It’s a way for us to interact with each other again globally in a peer-to-peer way without intermediaries, and I just think that’s really healthy. Maybe this current iteration of Bitcoin is not the one that they’re going to use in 10 years; I know for a fact that it’s not. But it clearly is just this fascinating innovation in how humans can network with each other. I do think that when you look at the world and how humans have evolved over time, it’s always been evolutions in the way we network with each other that have driven technological advancements. If you think about the agricultural revolution for better or worse, I know there’s a lot of debate about that. But think about it. It was really an upgrade in how human could network; it brought us from these small hunter/gather groups that really couldn’t get past this number of 150 people to cities and towns and villages and empires.
Alex Gladstein: Then you had the industrial revolution which really brought us from a couple of hundred million people on the planet to several billion in just a matter of a few hundred years because of advancements in different kinds of technology. If you even go really far back, you have the cognitive revolution which made humans different than animals. You can buy into this in books like Sapiens. But every time you had a key revolution in humanity, it was all about how we network with each other, and I really do feel like, at some basic level Bitcoin, is quite fundamental and it really reintroduces the idea that we can, no matter where we are on earth, interact with each other in a peer-to-peer way, and I just see is tremendously hopeful and positive and powerful to the individual, and hopefully bad news for dictatorships.
Peter McCormack: Okay. To finish off, it’d be great to know how people can track the Human Rights Foundation, where they can find out what they’re doing; where they can find out what you’re doing and who you want to hear from and how people can get involved?
Alex Gladstein: Great. Well, you can track us quite easily on social media. So, we’re HRF on Twitter. I’m Gladstein; just my last name, G-L-A-D-S-T-E-I-N. As far as how you can directly get involved, we actually have a program for just that. It’s called the Olso Freedom Forum, it’s a series of conferences that take place around the globe. We have one day events in Mexico City on February 26th, in South Africa on April 6th. Our three-day summit is in Norway from May 28th to 30. Then we have one day events in September in New York and in November in Taipei. You can come to these events and you can meet these activists and dissidents who are putting everything on the line to make a freer future, a more one society for their family and future generations and you can trade notes with them and learn from them and figure out how you can get involved and how you can make a difference. I would really encourage you to be interactive here and to actually attend one of our events.
Alex Gladstein: If you’d like an invitation just write to me email@example.com, your listeners obviously are also very deep in the Bitcoin space, potentially in other technologies, so what I would recommend is to write to me also if you have a particular project that you want to support or partner with us on. If you want to learn more about Bitcoin adoption in a certain country or if you want to underwrite some research or work together on a particular application or help a particular on the ground civil society group or entrepreneur. Let’s talk about it, let’s make it happen.
Peter McCormack: Well listen I think I want to come out to the summit actually. I’ve never been to Norway, so I think I might come out for that. This was great. Thank you so much for coming on, I’ve really enjoyed this. I think we’re definitely going to have to do a follow-up. There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t asked.
Alex Gladstein: I want to definitely formally extend that you should come to the Olso freedom forum and do a couple of episodes with some of our attendees. I think you’d have a blast.
Peter McCormack: No, I will I definitely can. Thanks for coming on Alex, this has been great.
Alex Gladstein: Awesome, well thank you so much, we’ll talk soon.