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Why Bitcoin is Important for Human Rights

Alex Gladstein on Bitcoin's importance for human rights as an accessible and equitable savings technology and censorship-resistant medium of exchange
Hi everyone, my name is Alex Gladstein. I’m the chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation. HRF is a nonprofit based in New York that has a mission of protecting and defending individual rights and civil liberties for people in authoritarian societies around the world. There are unfortunately today about 4.3 billion people in more than 95 countries living under an authoritarian regime. That’s about 53% of the world’s population. These individuals don’t have the same rights and liberties as maybe we have in advanced market economies like the United States, or Germany, or Japan. They don’t have an independent judiciary. They don’t have a free press. They have no real way to push for reform, and their rulers are autocratic and tyrannical.
And from HRF’s perspective, this is the largest challenge facing humanity. More people live under authoritarianism than lack clean drinking water, than live under abject poverty, than suffer from natural disasters, than suffer from war, or that are refugees. And authoritarianism is a big problem for humans because it negatively impacts every kind of socioeconomic piece of data you can think of. Whether it be maternal health rates, or inequality, innovation, patent rates. If you look at the top 10 freest societies in the world versus the bottom 10 or even the top 30 freest societies versus the bottom 30, you wanna be in Norway not North Korea. You wanna be in Estonia, not Belarus. You wanna be in Costa Rica, not Cuba.
Generally speaking, democracies are just better for humans. Now in our work at HRF, we have also realized there’s a really important aspect of human rights that’s often overlooked, and that’s financial freedoms, right? So in addition to 4.3 billion people living under authoritarianism everywhere from Saudi Arabia,
to Iran, to Vietnam, 1.2 billion people also live under double or triple digit inflation, right? So this is a scenario where your wages and the money that you earn sort of depreciates really quickly against things like the US dollar, or gold, or real estate, or even just goods that you need to buy. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Of course, you’ve heard stories about hyperinflation in Venezuela which is a tragedy. But we’re talking massive countries like Argentina, Pakistan, Nigeria where you have 50 million people, 100 million people, 200 million people suffering under inflation that’s 10, 15, or even 30 or 40%. In some places like Syria, or Lebanon, or Sudan even, and again these are large societies.
I mean, Sudan is many tens of millions of people. You have 100, 200, 300% inflation, right? So we have two big issues in the world today that most humans have exposure to unfortunately. Again political repression and then financial repression. So just to give you an idea, only 13% of humans live under a liberal democracy that has property rights and a reserve currency meaning that their currency is really stable and that other governments use it as a savings mechanism, right? So that would be like Australia, Canada, the United States, Britain, the EU, Japan, Switzerland. That’s pretty much it. Every other country either suffers from a weaker currency that depreciates pretty fast.
Really fast in some cases, or an authoritarian system like China, right? So in light of all of that,
87% of the world’s population is dealing with one of these issues. And Bitcoin is a tremendous revolutionary phenomenon for these people. For everybody, but mainly for people who live under financial and political repression. And that’s because it’s money that isn’t controlled by anybody. Bitcoin is not controlled by any government or corporation. It’s powered by the people who run the Bitcoin servers all around the world. It is basically devaluation-proof. No ruler, or group, or company can decide to make more Bitcoin. The issuance schedule of the amount of Bitcoin that will exist is predetermined and algorithmic. And we know exactly how it’s going to go and how it will proceed over the next hundred years.
It’s very clear to everybody, and there’s no secrets. There’s no sort of backdoor chats. Like in our current legacy financial systems, we’re very used to a small group of people getting together at Davos or behind closed doors in the government to determine what the price of money’s gonna be, how much money’s gonna be issued, what the rules are gonna be, et cetera. Bitcoin is the opposite. Bitcoin, everything’s out in the open and it’s public. Everybody who would like to know can just look it up really fast, and they can even verify it all using pretty cheap technology at home. They can actually verify every single transaction ever and verify the amount of Bitcoin that exists.
So this is radically different from the existing system. And this is really important because it allows anybody around the world regardless of what nationality they are, regardless of what passport they are, regardless of what beliefs they have, what gender they, what ethnicity they are, doesn’t matter. Bitcoin does not discriminate, it can’t discriminate, and it offers two really big, important technological innovations. One, a better savings account. So anyone can acquire Bitcoin without KYC, without providing their information. They can earn it. They can receive it in a peer-to-peer marketplace from a family abroad, from anyone listening to this right now. You can send Bitcoin to someone else.
All they need is access to the internet, and they can download an open source Bitcoin wallet. And again you don’t have to be a certain status. Very, very different from the existing financial system where if you wanna send money remotely to somebody, they have to sign up for some sort of service, right? That leaves billions of people unbanked, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So Bitcoin can really help close that gap, and it gives anybody access to a premiere savings technology. Let’s not forget this thing has gone from a few cents, a few pennies, to $60,000 in the span of 12 years, okay? That’s an incredible performance compared to any asset, let alone blue-chip stocks, real estate, fine art.
The things that rich people can normally invest in. Poor people or folks that are behind sanctions or in various developing countries, emerging markets around the world don’t have access to those things. They don’t even have access to those things. So they’re looking at things like sheet metal, cows as ways to store their value over time. To take their time and energy and put it into something that can store their value, that is very tenuous for them. Well, all of a sudden they can have the best store value in the world, the one that’s performed the best. It’s open to everybody. Total equality of opportunity. The same rules apply to everyone regardless of whether you’re a billionaire or a refugee.
It’s very, very powerful. The other really big innovation that Bitcoin brings is censorship resistance and unstoppability. Because of the way that the processing works in Bitcoin, it’s not done by Visa, or the Federal Reserve, or by Swift or someone like that. It’s done by a competition between individuals that are unknown to one another around the world who are expending energy to process transactions in return for a reward. This process is called mining. It happens all around the world, and it’s designed in a way that makes censorship not possible. So transactions are not censored in Bitcoin.
No matter who you are, no matter how good or bad you are or whatever, no one’s gonna stop you from sending your transaction to someone else. A miner will accept it and will process that. And that’s really remarkable because around the world today, governments rely on the freezing of bank accounts to shut down opposition movements, democracy movements, to try to neutralize people like Alexei Navalny in Russia or the Feminist Coalition in Nigeria, or even political movements and people that are unsavory here in the United States, okay? So it’s a global phenomenon where the powers that be try to minimize their critics by shutting down their access to the financial services.
Bitcoin allows everyone an escape, allows them to opt into a system that doesn’t have that kind of preferential treatment, right? So for people around the world, this idea of a censorship-resistant money that is this medium of exchange that can’t be stopped that’s also a really good store of value is a remarkable innovation. And it’s worthy of your time to study, and dig in, and learn how you can kind of comprehend how this is gonna affect your field, your work, your life. The final thing I’ll say is that this matters for us too even in advanced economies in places like America. Number one, don’t think that we’re perfect.
I mean, there’s massive financial discrimination in the banking system in the United States, especially for black communities, different minorities. They have a provably harder time opening lines of credit. They get screwed on mortgages, et cetera, et cetera. This system is built to oppress them, okay? So Bitcoin again gives everybody a level playing field, and there’s a lot of activists for example in the African-American community trying to show people around the country that they can access this thing that’s not rigged against them, okay? Bitcoin’s not rigged against anybody, unlike the existing financial system. The other thing we need to think about is surveillance capitalism.
When you buy stuff today with a swipe, or with your watch, or with your phone, or with a tap, you reveal an enormous amount of information about yourself in a way that cash, paper money never did, right? When you bought something with a $20 bill or a $5 bill, you didn’t reveal anything about yourself to the merchant. They just got their final settlement, and you moved along, right? You bought a hammer at the hardware store, you bought a newspaper at the kiosk, and that was it. Today when you do that with a swipe, you’re revealing the time, what you bought, your previous buying patterns. And it goes all into this cloud and it gets analyzed, right?
And you become the product yourself, right? So Bitcoin gives us a way out of this because on top of Bitcoin as a settlement network, you can program and build layers on top that can be basically digital cash. So the Lightning Network is a good example. It’s like global instant private final settlement. So in the future, we will be using stuff like the Lightning Network to for example buy something online immediately without revealing all this information about ourselves. This isn’t possible to do in the legacy financial system. So for all of these reasons,
I believe that Bitcoin is incredibly important for human rights. It is something that people are using as a lifeline whether they are escaping from Venezuela or trying to make ends meet inside Iran where there are sanctions. Or whether they are trapped in China where there’s capital controls. Or maybe they’re just a refugee or someone who’s gone to a new country, and has managed to actually this time bring their wealth with them and start a new life. This wasn’t possible before in history. Refugees weren’t able to convert their time and energy into something that they could just bring with them.
But today you can bring any amount of Bitcoin on a USB stick, on a phone, on a pi- You can write your password down on a piece of paper or even memorize it, and you can walk across the border with any amount of money in your head. And that’s incredibly inspiring, and I’ve met countless people who’ve done things like this with this tool. Today they are about best estimates, somewhere around 150 million people who’ve ever used Bitcoin in one way or another. That is a very small amount. That’s less than 2% of the world’s population. So we are at the very beginning. You are one of the early adopters if you’re listening to this and you understand what I’m saying.
Over the next decade, we’re gonna go to a billion users. So I think this is not only a crucial tool for human rights but a generally very important thing for you to understand when it comes to any line of work. So I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and you can follow our work at the Human Rights Foundation and follow me on Twitter, @gladstein. And hope to chat with you about this one day. Thank you very much.

In this audio segment, Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation, talks about how Bitcoin can help strengthen civil liberties and challenge authoritarian powers.

He outlines two important technological innovations that make Bitcoin important for people under financial or political oppression: Bitcoin is an accessible and equitable savings technology and it is a censorship-resistant medium of exchange. While many view Bitcoin purely as a financial investment opportunity, as Alex points out in this step, it is a revolutionary technology that creates equity by fundamentally reshaping the global financial systems.

Discussion: In what ways did Alex’s segment change the way you view Bitcoin’s potential to change the current state of global finance? Did it expand your understanding of who benefits and how? How so?

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