Alex Gladstein on bitcoin and freedom

Cash remains one of the best ways to exercise free speech. Paper or metal money is virtually anonymous, and can be used without government surveillance. But in places like Venezuela, where bills are weighed in stacks by the kilogram even for small transactions, cash is increasingly impractical, and it’s vulnerable to theft or seizure. And from China to Sweden, governments and companies are driving us toward a cashless world. It’s essential that we explore electronic money that can preserve the peer-to-peer quality of cash for future generations. When you pay someone with software like Venmo, you might use three or four financial intermediaries, even though the recipient might be standing in front of you. Each intermediary can potentially censor, surveil, and profit. And the billions of humans living under repressive regimes can’t expect most payment software in the future to remain as innocent or benevolent as Venmo. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written, Bitcoin is “an insurance policy against an Orwellian future.”


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20 Responses to Alex Gladstein on bitcoin and freedom

  1. Rohan

    To be sure, Bitcoin is still a nascent technology, and doesn’t offer cutting-edge usability, speed, or privacy.

    So if the Venezuelan government decided to keep tabs on bitcoin transactions of its citizens as it currently stands, it can send the tax collectors around at will. And they will apply whatever draconian punishment they see fit. Sure they apparently haven’t woken up to this fact, but they soon will. 56% tax on incomming funds as reported in that link is a big incentive.

    All any government has to do is to monitor this as it stands. And they’ll know exactly what youre trasacting and with whom. Bitcoin wont stop orwellian governments, but will assist to enable them.

    Cash is still king.

  2. RobK

     Bitcoin is “an insurance policy against an Orwellian future.”
    Is that all we’ve got?

  3. pbw

    In the introduction to blockchain and bitcoin given by your colleague …mumble, mumble… it was pointed out that there is no privacy in bitcoin, and that all of the silk road entrepreneurs are now in jail. This doesn’t quite fit the story.

    I recall great enthusiasm for dealing with China (i.e. putting all manufacturing under the direct and indirect control of the Communist Party of China) because (sotto voce: we’ll make a sh*tload of money and) no authoritarian regime can survive the internet. Ahem.

    If the CPC can render the internet harmless for domestic consumption, keeping track of bitcoin-like transactions will be easy. Yes, there are plenty of proposals out there, but the market can’t work out which bitcoin fork to follow, let alone decide on competing privacy-assured transaction blockchains. BitCoin had, and retains, first mover advantage, and in its establishment phase, it wasn’t market-driven, it was geek-driven. Its other advantage was that it was designed by one person (or one identity). These conditions will never obtain again.

  4. Tel

    Bitcoin is “an insurance policy against an Orwellian future.”
    Is that all we’ve got?

    Prosecution futures, very vulnerable to rubber hose cryptanalysis.

  5. Tel

    … all of the silk road entrepreneurs are now in jail …

    All of the known silk road entrepreneurs are in jail, but strangely the trade continues and that’s kind of the point. As the saying goes, “I am not the real Dread Pirate Roberts” but they all say that.

  6. John Constantine

    Good little digital scales, to measure gold and silver and and moonshine and homegrown tobacco.

    Once electricity is rationed, electric currency can only trade when the State allows electricity supply.

    Out in the bush, the internet goes down and telstra pay terminals go down.

    Our future is stored value State ration cards, that can be clipped by terminals at State ration barns without internet up or power on.


  7. EvilElvis

    Sounds like you want Bitcoin to be the consequence of an Orwellian present, in Venezuela.

  8. Mark A

    You have to marvel at the childlike innocence of academics, when it comes to what governments can and will do.

  9. Mark A

    not quite OT

    Why were Adam and Eve Marxist-Leninist?

    Who else, possessing nothing but a single apple, and walking around with a naked arse, could still believe they were in a paradise?

  10. yarpos

    Yes, in a world where technology providers increasingly censor, surveil and profit, the answer is of course Bitcoin i.e. more technology. Its a lot like how when renewables fail to deliver the answer is more renewables. Blind faith comes to mind.

  11. Bad Samaritan

    What stops an ISP blocking your access to bitcoin sites in the same way they already block various sires?

  12. Mark A

    Bad Samaritan
    #2899786, posted on January 6, 2019 at 8:48 am

    What stops an ISP blocking your access to bitcoin sites in the same way they already block various sires?

    And if you think VPN is the answer, it’s not. I know from experience using a well known paid for VPN.
    If the gov. wants to stop you they will. For most, 99.999% of people it’s true. Some, for a time, could find a way around but it will be for naught, by then the bitcoin system is gone.

  13. Angus Black

    The problem with bitcoin, for me is one of network externalities (that is to say, the utility increases at order N! where N is the number of users). At best, bitcoin is an option … and during an early usage expansion phase, an option of only marginal benefit to marginal numbers of prospective users.

    Governments are disadvantaged (in terms of their ability to control members of the population – which is all they actually care about, colour me cynical) by the freedoms offered by bitcoin (etc) and will inevitably do what they can to spike the projects.

    The bet, therefore, is simply whether N will ever become great enough for perceived comparative utility to reach the point where adoption booms.

    I’m betting against, at present – I just can’t see the path.

  14. Tel

    What stops an ISP blocking your access to bitcoin sites in the same way they already block various sires?

    Well the Chinese government hasn’t been able to stop it, so that’s the test case. Nothing the Australian government and ISPs can do would be as draconian as what China is already doing (not yet at any rate, might come to that).

    The Chinese crackdown closed some miners and some exchanges, those things being difficult to hide.

  15. JohnA

    A definition from Wikipedia:

    Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a form of electronic cash. It is a decentralized digital currency without a central bank or single administrator that can be sent from user-to-user on the peer-to-peer bitcoin network without the need for intermediaries.

    Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain.

    There is nothing anonymous about e-currencies.

    Therefore they cannot substitute for the anonymity of cash or coin. Why do we think those governments pushing towards a cashless society are doing it?

    And I hesitate to give malicious governments any clues, but they don’t need to prevent the use of e-currencies by blocking access or use. They merely need to track transactions and either tax or arrest the perpetrators, no?

    As Tel pointed out:

    Bitcoin is “an insurance policy against an Orwellian future.”
    Is that all we’ve got?

    There is no insurance coverage because of the exclusions in the fine print.

  16. JohnA

    A follow-on comment about block-chain technology generally:

    It looks to me like a distributed form of centralism. Each participant effectively holds veto power over those following them in the chain.

  17. Chris M

    Bitcoin is “an insurance policy against an Orwellian future.”

    Well I’m not sure about that but it is an insurance policy against financial stability.

  18. flyingduk

    Whilst Bitcoin is (currently) not anonymous, in future it, or other cryptos may be, but thats not the biggest benefit of bitcoin. The biggest benefit of bitcoin is that it is not seizeable/censorable *without the owners consent*. This brings in a whole new power for the owners of bitcoin: the government can DEMAND you surrender it, or threaten you in all the usual ways (jail etc), but if you do not agree, they do not get it. What this means is, for the first time in history, there is a limit to what they can force you to do. I already have a ‘succession plan’ which will seamlessly transfer all of my hard assetts (guns, gold, cryptos) to my chosen beneficiaries after my death and there is nothing the government can do about that.

  19. flyingduk

    What stops an ISP blocking your access to bitcoin sites in the same way they already block various sires?

    Bitcoin is a distributed network and there are many, many ways you can access it. It might be via a web portal, but it can be via SMS, or even a piece of paper.

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