Alex Gladstein is the Chief Strategy Officer of the Human Rights Foundation and an advocate for Bitcoin as a tool to fight surveillance and monetary repression. He has served as Vice President of Strategy for the Oslo Freedom Forum and written about human rights protection for leading media outlets worldwide.
The BTC Times sat down with Alex Gladstein to talk about his work, supporting human rights with Bitcoin, and Bitcoin's privacy model.
Hi Alex, thank you for joining us. How were you first introduced to Bitcoin?
In 2013, I spent a week with a bunch of bitcoiners at an event called Ephemerisle. They gave talks on the subject and tried to get the crowd interested. I later followed up with one of them, who was trying to help Ukrainian human rights activists raise funds via Bitcoin. Just a few months later, in 2014, the country would see the rise of huge protests and the collapse of a corrupt regime. So Bitcoin was definitely on my mind then. I also remember reading and sharing Marc Andreessen’s captivating 2014 New York Times op-ed on Bitcoin. Later that year, the Human Rights Foundation started accepting Bitcoin donations on the encouragement of one of our donors. That ended up being a great thing for the organization. In 2016, we had some conversations with Bill Tai, who was on the board of Bitfury and was evangelizing Bitcoin at the time. With his help, we ended up having the first Bitcoin and human rights workshop at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May of 2017. That’s when I personally really started to dive in and fall down the rabbit hole, aided by lots of videos from Andreas Antonopoulos.
Have your motivations to buy and hold bitcoin changed since then?
Learning how to buy and hold bitcoin is important for everyone. Being your own bank is a revolution, and everyone should try, even with a tiny amount, even if just for their own education. Since 2014, HRF has continued to accept Bitcoin donations, and we’ve learned more about self-custody since then. Today we run BTCPay Server on our own node and even accept PayJoin and Lightning donations. As we progress into the future, I think the motivations for people to get involved this way will only grow stronger.
In your own words, what is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is digital cash beyond the control of corporations and governments. It’s scarce, decentralized, permissionless, programmable, pseudonymous, and borderless. As such, it’s a powerful force for human rights. It has the potential of replicating the functions of banknotes and gold in our society as tools of privacy, savings, inflation-hedging, and money for people who don’t have identification or who aren’t part of the system.
What is your job at the Human Rights Foundation? Does the foundation find a specific use in Bitcoin?
I am Chief Strategy Officer at HRF, where I help guide the organization’s growth, fundraising, marketing, and media. The organization’s mission is to focus on promoting and protecting individual rights in authoritarian societies around the world. As such, we have taken a strong interest in Bitcoin as a tool to help people who are otherwise stuck under financial repression. To act on this, we have done our part to accept bitcoin and encourage other non-profits to accept it; we have spoken at events around the world and written in the media about its impact on human rights; we have helped support the Open Money Initiative to research Bitcoin use in various countries around the world; and we have launched the Bitcoin Development Fund, where we are raising money to make gifts to developers working to make Bitcoin more private, resilient, usable, and decentralized.
You are an advocate for financial privacy and frequently warn about the privacy-infringement implications of central bank-issued digital currencies. Do you think Bitcoin is sufficiently secured against government-led privacy violations?
Privacy in Bitcoin has a long way to go. Today, it can be trivial for governments or corporations to trace the flow of funds along the Bitcoin blockchain. Yes, they first need to deanonymize users to pair addresses with real world identities, but that can be relatively easily done through the coercion or cooperation of exchanges and other custodial entities. So surveillance is a big threat. However, thankfully, Bitcoin is programmable money. Its privacy is becoming more robust and will reach another milestone with the adoption of Taproot, unlocking several new ways to improve on-chain privacy. HRF supported Chris Belcher’s work on CoinSwap, for instance, as well as Openoms work on JoinMarket, so this area is definitely a priority for us. We are also following the implications of second-layer solutions like Lightning and sidechains.
Whatever you think of Bitcoin’s privacy model, you must know that central bank digital currencies are extremely unlikely to offer true privacy. It certainly won’t be an option under authoritarian regimes like China, and may not even end up being an option in open societies like the United States.
What hurdles do you think Bitcoin faces when it comes to the question of if/how to increase Bitcoin’s privacy features?
There could be a privacy war in Bitcoin in the coming years, similar to the scaling wars that we saw come to a head in 2017. We could see a similar alliance of corporations and miners, for instance, this time pushing against new Bitcoin privacy upgrades. Thankfully I think, as the UASF movement demonstrated, they’ll have little to no ability to control the direction of the network. And many, many Bitcoin enthusiasts, developers, and entrepreneurs care deeply about privacy.
What changes do you anticipate for Bitcoin users from the upcoming updates to FATF's Travel Rule?
It remains to be seen if all of the FATF’s recommendations become law in the United States. Coin Center is doing a good job laying out why implementing these rules would be such a bad idea and so contrary to our free society. I would expect increasing regulations in this area. The way to push back is through technological innovation. Just as the cypherpunks were able to cement and popularize encrypted messaging, bitcoiners today can cement and popularize digital cash.
You have said before that you see Bitcoin as “a liberation tool for people who live under broken financial systems and repressed corrupt environments” rather than the money of choice for people in first world countries like the U.S. Do you think mass adoption will be driven by citizens under repressive regimes, or by “big money” from institutions?
Bitcoin is a global phenomenon, and adoption comes in different forms. It is likely that daily usage does not track holdings. For example, we may see the most daily usage and activity in Bitcoin in places like Nigeria, the Philippines, and Argentina in the coming years, but we may see the most holdings accumulated by actors in East Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
What do you think of Julian Assange?
I met Julian Assange in person in May of 2010 when he spoke at the Human Rights Foundation’s second Oslo Freedom Forum event in Norway. His talk—called The Whistleblower—is about 17 minutes long, and is on YouTube. It’s definitely worth watching.
Finally, has Bitcoin made your life better or worse?
Bitcoin has definitely made my life better. I wouldn’t be nearly as optimistic about the future if it didn’t exist!