The challenge of each generation is to leave the world in a better place than we found it when we arrived. Although each generation will face their own set of unique circumstances, the stakes are raised with each successive step we take. Time is always marching forward, and with it we have seen an exponential increase in technology, which appears to be speeding up, rather than slowing down.
Although technology has brought us incredible opportunity and democratized access to information, there are also dangers, both transparent and veiled. We built a platform for global communications, only to find that in many places access to information was censored, and mass surveillance has become the norm, even in the societies with the most freedom. We created more data than we could imagine and found there was great value in this data. But then the data was breached, many times, and we discovered that the primary beneficiaries of this value were not us; we became the products. In the United States, we saw the stock market growing by leaps and bounds, new highs in GDP; but we lost the middle class. In the world at large, we had remarkable progress on clean energy, but we saw abuses of human rights, the targeting and murder of journalists and activists, hyperinflation and more than one refugee crisis. It is now reported that nearly four billion people live under an authoritarian regime.
Do you feel the weight of these challenges? If so, have you ever thought about why the overwhelming majority of us can agree that mass surveillance, censorship, and the abuses of human rights are a shared concern? The founding fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence that certain unalienable rights are self-evident. There’s something about this that resonates with us as Americans, but more than that, I think the majority of the world believes this to be true for everyone, not just citizens of the United States.
We believe in privacy rights, democracy, free speech (including censorship resistance), and strong property rights. Yet, even in the United States these things are threatened. The Bill of Rights protects free speech in the 1st amendment. In the 4th amendment we are guaranteed the right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure (including the right to be secure in our persons, houses, papers). The 5th amendment protects property rights, among other things. So, how did we end up with a government tap into the fiber backbone of the internet? How did we end up with politicians campaigning against strong encryption? In a digital age, “papers” could easily be translated to “documents” or “emails.” These are possessions of their creators and their recipients. These documents, files, they are digital property. If global data collection is not unreasonable search, I don’t know what is. There must be a better way to protect ourselves without giving up our rights.
In 1838, Abraham Lincoln warned against the rise of authoritarian leaders. He urged people to understand this threat, and should such a person arise “… it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.” This insight speaks to the world at large today. In the United States, we may be able to work with governments and regulators to achieve beneficial support for such systems. However, in other places, this may not be an option. For them, having access to empowering tools is absolutely necessary even if their government has turned against the citizens.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau pointed out that “most men live lives of quiet desperation.” This insight was powerful then, and it’s still applicable today, with more than half the population struggling under authoritarianism. Ask yourself, “how can we give those suffering people a voice?” I’m going to suggest that without free speech, privacy and censorship resistance, this task would be impossible.
In the Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, Eric Hughes notes that “Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age,” and “Privacy in an open society also requires cryptography.” If you think about it, how free is speech, if all speech must occur in the open — in public? Are you really free to speak your mind if you cannot choose your audience? As Hughes says “We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We must come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place. People have been defending their own privacy for centuries with whispers, darkness, envelopes, closed doors, secret handshakes, and couriers. The technologies of the past did not allow for strong privacy, but electronic technologies do.” Hughes touches on the need for electronic money as well. But it wouldn’t be until 2008, fifteen years after the Cypherpunk’s Manifesto was published, that we would see this electronic money emerge.
Satoshi Nakamoto gave us a roadmap with the Bitcoin whitepaper. Suddenly, it was possible for two people to transact with each other without a third party. We started thinking about trust in new ways and what the implications were. Bitcoin opened Pandora’s box for a whole ecosystem of competing and complementary technologies. In a single stroke, Satoshi opened the door to private transactions (yes, this is a moving target), free speech (censorship resistance), the ability to send transactions to anyone, a life raft for those suffering from hyperinflation, a check and balance for authoritarian regimes seeking to abuse their power at the cost of their own citizens, a global currency that doesn’t need an army to enforce its value, and a host of other applications too vast to discuss in detail here.
Strong property rights are a key component to economic development . But with the dawn of the digital age, where data could easily be copied and pasted, it was not clear how to manage digital property. Satoshi showed us how to have something that’s both digital and scarce, which means that we can begin the long journey of discovering the value of scarce digital goods. This journey has the potential to revolutionize value transfer, unlock underutilized assets by tokenizing them, and potentially create entirely new markets that don’t exist today.
There are people on the front lines, fighting for the oppressed under dire circumstances. They risk their safety, that of their families, and even their own lives. One such casualty was Bassel Khartabil, who was sentenced to death for the high crime of being an activist and open source software engineer in Syria under Bashar al-Assad. In Nicaragua, the state-owned television was cut off while students were gunned down in the streets.
What would you do if the internet was suddenly cut off, and your own government started using chemical weapons on people where you live? Could you fight back? How would you get the word out and ask for help? One way to mitigate these abuses of power is to build systems that naturally resist this kind of manipulation, such as blockchain technology and mesh networks. If history has taught us anything, it’s that power will be abused. It’s happened in the past, it’s happening now, and it will happen in the future. How long will we wait to start building a better future?
We believe that being involved in Bitcoin, blockchain technology, or cryptoassets in general is one of the few ways that we can drive innovation, check the power of authoritarian leaders, and bring about a complete economic revolution as we move into a more digital society. It is for these reasons that we believe in Bitcoin, and the transformative potential of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology as a force for good.
Our goal is to live in a world where every person is in control of their own privacy and property, where every person can speak without the fear of censorship, and all societies of such people participate in a democratic process that is transparent, trustworthy and inclusive. We seek to create a world where technological advancement does not come at the expense of human well-being.
We invite you to join us.
Hans Hauge, 2018
- The Declaration of Independence, 1776
- The Bill of Rights, 1789
- Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln, 1838
- Walden, Henry David Thoreau, 1854
- The Cypherpunk Manifesto, Eric Hughes, 1993
- The Bitcoin Whitepaper, Satoshi Nakamoto, 2008
- What Are the “Ingredients” for Economic Growth?, St Louis Fed, 2013
- IGF 2015 Flyer on Bassel Khartabil, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2015
- Property rights for world’s poor could unlock trillions in ‘dead capital’: economist, Reuters, 2016
- Why the rise of authoritarianism is a global catastrophe, The Washington Post, 2017
- Fed up: Nicaragua’s uprising, The Tico Times, 2018
- The ET Interviews: Anti-Authoritarian Technology, 2018
- Trends in the cost of computing, AI Impacts, 2015
- PRISM: Here’s how the NSA wiretapped the Internet, ZDNet, 2013
Hans HODL is a cryptoassets analyst, inventor of the Bitcoin Value Indicator, and manager of the Norse Crypto Fund.