The ET Interviews: Anti-Authoritarian Technology

[Ed. note: Neville Crawley is more plugged-in than anyone I know, so when he offered to interview smart people on the front lines of the technology/mass society battleground as part of his Rabbit Hole series, I figured it would be good stuff. As it turns out, it’s GREAT stuff. Here’s the first in what I hope will be an ongoing feature for Epsilon Theory. – Ben]

This week I am interviewing Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer of Human Rights Foundation and guest lecturer at Singularity University. I met Alex a couple of years ago when he was moderating an exceptionally interesting and lively Human Rights Foundation (HRF) panel on identity, distributed systems and human rights. Alex’s work has helped me gain a deeper appreciation for how fundamentally identity and human rights are tied together, and the importance of considering freedom and control of the most vulnerable populations when designing technology infrastructure. Alex is a deep thinker on the intersection of technology, freedom and decentralization and so I am very pleased to welcome him to Epsilon Theory. – Neville Crawley

Welcome to Epsilon Theory, Alex. Firstly, what is the mission and origin story of HRF?

The Human Rights Foundation was founded in 2006 by the Venezuelan activist Thor Halvorssen. The world was 7 years into the Hugo Chávez experiment, and things weren’t going well in Venezuela. The Chávez regime was jailing critics, cutting off independent media, fatally compromising the independence of the legislature and judiciary, and presiding over monstrous corruption. Thor was watching his country — which, before Chávez, was a constitutional (if imperfect) democracy — slide into outright authoritarianism. Today it’s easy to look at the human rights and starvation disaster in Venezuela (now home to one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, producing more daily refugees than Syria) and say we should have done something. But before Chavez’s death, the world did very little. In fact, the mainstream political establishment at the time seemed to at times to be cheering for Chávez. Human rights groups were quiet until late in his rule. So, with this experience in mind, Thor chose to found HRF as a non-profit organization to focus specifically on promoting individual rights and civil liberties in closed and closing societies. As far as I know, HRF is the world’s only organization that focuses on authoritarianism as a global problem. We work simultaneously on challenging and exposing the crimes of dictatorships everywhere from Cuba to Saudi Arabia to Vietnam, while at the same time running programs to support democracy activists, civil society organizers, at-risk journalists, and others who labor under authoritarian regimes. Our programs include the Oslo Freedom Forum conference series, the Flash Drives for Freedom initiative to smuggle outside information into North Korea, PutinCon, and a range of impact litigation, technology, and educational initiatives to support rights advocates operating in tough environments. By HRF’s count, there are approximately 4 billion people in today’s world who live under some type of closed society, where there is no ACLU, no Washington Post, no ability to hire a human rights lawyer, no chance at organizing a successful public protest, no way to safely run a pride parade or expose government corruption. HRF specializes in helping dissidents in these conditions, the future Havels and Mandelas of the world.

Could you give us a bit about your background and how you came to be Chief Strategy Officer of HRF?

In early 2007 I was studying in London and interning at the British Parliament. I managed to get a summer position at HRF, and my first task was to put together backpacks which would be brought by my Latin American colleagues into Cuba and given to the island’s underground library movement. Inside the backpacks were innocent-looking cases of music CDs–Britney Spears, and the like. But despite their labels, I had secretly burned onto the discs various dubbed films ranging from Braveheart to V for Vendetta. Cuban civil society organizations would watch them quietly in tiny groups inside their homes on portable DVD players which we also supplied. The program was hugely popular, and there was always a demand for more content. In a country where the dictatorship approves all books and educational content, a movie can act like a red pill in The Matrix. This type of activity later become what is now known as the paquete, a Netflix-meets-Milk Man system where Cubans now get video on demand, delivered to their home. I worked on a few other meaningful programs, and in 2009 we launched the first Oslo Freedom Forum, and I was forever hooked on HRF. Thor saw that the world had prominent, popular, high-level gatherings for finance (the World Economic Forum), ideas (TED), and development (the Clinton Global Initiative) — but nothing similar for human rights. Thor’s filmmaking background and Norwegian connections led us to do a theater production in Oslo, where dissidents would tell their personal stories on stage to an audience of industry leaders. The goal was to find the most effective individuals pushing peacefully for freedom in places like Russia and China and give them a platform, media attention, resources, new technical skills, and a global network. Over the years I worked very closely on this project, while also working in media and development areas. In 2015 I was appointed Chief Strategy Officer and since then have led our communications and development efforts and helped shape our overall growth strategy.

I know that you personally think a lot about ‘anti-authoritarian technologies’ and spend a lot of time with the blockchain community. What projects are you particularly interested in right now and why?

Through my work at HRF I’ve gained a great and deep appreciation for liberal democracy, or, as we could just as easily say, decentralized government. In fact, I would argue that separation of powers is the single most important ingredient for a liberal democracy — far more important and fundamental than elections. All dictators have elections. And we’ve had various forms of tyranny ever since the agricultural revolution. The real innovation in governance — arguably first sparked by Cleisthenes in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago — was that humans should be ruled by rules, not rulers. In today’s liberal democracies, power is distributed across executive, legislative, and judicial institutions, and is constantly checked by the people through a free press and by civil society organizations. In a healthy democracy, no single person or small group of people is in charge. I am drawn to bitcoin because it brings this same concept to money and to technology. There are other technologies that I view as anti-authoritarian that are really interesting to me, ranging from censorship-resistant storage (IPFS) to distributed internet access (goTenna) to zero knowledge cryptography (ZCash) to decentralized payment networks (Lightning) to encrypted messaging (Signal). I think they (or their counterparts) will all eventually be used in conjunction with each other, but to me, the most groundbreaking is bitcoin.

Bitcoin is widely debated, including amongst the Epsilon Theory community. You have a particular view of bitcoin as ‘censorship resistant money’ – could you talk more about that and why it is important?

In the bitcoin network, no single person or small group of people are in charge. Power is divided in a similar way to representative democracies. Instead of the executive branch sitting in the White House, we have the miners, who expend enormous amounts of energy to add new blocks of transactions onto the historical bitcoin ledger. Instead of the legislative branch, we have the coding community, who come up with new ways to improve bitcoin, whose software has been upgraded hundreds of times since its inception in 2009. But just like with a Supreme Court and judicial system, the ultimate power in the bitcoin network is in the hands of the users, who run full nodes all around the world. Each of these nodes — who number in the thousands and are largely unknown to each other — hold the entire transaction history of bitcoin, and decide independently which blocks to approve, and which coding upgrades to allow. When I look at the bitcoin governance model from a political science perspective, it’s the power of the users that makes the network so interesting. Miners and developers can’t simply take over the network. A coup cannot be orchestrated by one person or branch. Power is decentralized.

But decentralization is only a means to an end. In politics, decentralization in the form of liberal democracy gives us a superior society than centralized tyranny. There are of course exceptions but generally speaking — Estonia or Belarus? Costa Rica or Cuba? South Korea or North Korea? Tunisia or Egypt? Ghana or Equatorial Guinea? Whether you care about innovation, growth, entrepreneurship, equality, prosperity, long-term stability, life expectancy, social welfare, or even peace — no two liberal democracies have ever fought each other — you’ll want a free and open society, not a dictatorship. In bitcoin, decentralization gives us censorship-resistance. Because of the distributed architecture of the network, it is impossible to censor individual transactions. They are truly peer to peer and the “ordering service” normally done by a centralized entity at Visa or PayPal, is done by a global competition, where someone will always process your translation, as long as you have enough bitcoin to complete it. This may not be very important for those of us living in democracies where we can more or less trust our governments and banking systems — but it’s a revolutionary development for the billions living under authoritarian governments. For the first time, people can transact in a global, borderless way, within minutes, with a very low fee, in a way that cannot be stopped. So whether you are up against hyperinflation in Venezuela or capital controls in China, bitcoin is a really important, disruptive technology that demands to be understood. Can it be used for bad? Of course. That’s like asking if the internet can be used for bad. But in general, it’s going to change the world, and there are market and human impact reasons to study it closely.

What problems do you think still need to be solved with Bitcoin for to fulfill its potential, and who is working on them?

There are social and educational problems with bitcoin, and then there are technical challenges. Right now I’d actually say the former are more important to tackle. First of all, very few people on this planet have ever used bitcoin, and far fewer understand how it works or why it would be important for someone living under a dictatorship. I’ve seen some people say that no more than 40 million people have ever interacted with bitcoin or any cryptocurrency. So that’s well less than 1% of the world’s population. And even in hyper-connected places like San Francisco and London — or, honestly, even at blockchain conferences — people generally can’t describe to you how and why bitcoin works. We need a world-class effort to explain the technological power and potential of bitcoin to the average person. This information needs to be clear, fun, engaging, and in many different languages. And we must address the conflation problem. The conflation problem is the circumstance we find ourselves in today when everyone starts talking about cryptocurrency and blockchain and bitcoin as if they are the same things. Bitcoin is a decentralized money network that runs on proof of work. Ethereum aims to be a decentralized world computer that wants to use proof of stake. Enterprise blockchains (i.e. blockchains with a backdoors) claim to bring more transparency and accountability to corporate functions like supply chains. Regardless of how bullish or bearish we are on these different projects, we need to stop conflating them with one another. The “bitcoin” blockchain has a radically different set of characteristics than any other blockchain. And it has a particular set of characteristics that give it the unique quality of censorship-resistance. This is why it is important for people who live under dictatorships. So I believe that in human rights-centric educational materials, we need to separate out bitcoin from other projects in the blockchain space, and give it its own chapter, or own brochure, or own book. Unfortunately, and partly because bitcoin is leaderless, there isn’t a coordinated effort to do this.

On the technical challenges side, I’m more optimistic. In order to achieve censorship-resistance, you necessarily are going to have to sacrifice speed and cost. So I believe that on-chain bitcoin transactions are always ultimately going to be more expensive and slower than the competition. Also, due to the public nature of its blockchain, bitcoin is not strictly a privacy technology. So while it’s not easy or cheap to do chain analysis to figure out who is sending which bitcoins to whom, it’s possible, and that’s not great if you are living in a dictatorship. Luckily, brilliant people are working on improvements in all of these areas. On the user side, there are wallets being developed that help increase the privacy of bitcoin transactions. And on the infrastructure side, there’s improvements happening on the bitcoin base layer and on “second layer” technology, like, for example, the Lightning Network. There are a handful of companies and lots of individual developers working on Lightning, which is a decentralized payment network that essentially sits on top of bitcoin. The network just launched earlier this year, and is in the early stages of its architecture, but it should eventually allow you to transact bitcoin very fast, with a very low fee, in a very private way (it in fact uses similar encryption technology to the Tor browser), and thus should be very interesting to people living under closed societies. It also introduces the concept of being able to “stake” your bitcoin into the Lightning Network and provide a service and make a small fee, all without giving up control over your bitcoin, which is of course interesting from a financial perspective.

You might ask why, despite all of these interesting developments, bitcoin is tanking in price. Well, ask yourself, were there major breakthroughs in bitcoin technology between October 2017 and December 2017? No, but the price quadrupled. Did the bitcoin network’s technology get compromised between January and today? Far from it — but the price has gone down by 85%. Remember that the fluctuating price of bitcoin is not reflecting technological advancement.

I remember I was in Cairo during Tahrir Square in 2011 and Twitter was an incredibly useful tool for staying safe and staying in contact. Are there are other bits of ‘mainstream tech’ today that are playing an important role in human rights and freedom?

I tend to agree with Yuval Noah Harari that technology today is, generally speaking, authoritarian by nature. Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence — these are all being used by governments and companies to control us. The most striking example, of course, is happening in the world’s largest country — China. There, more than a billion people are part of a grand social engineering experiment where the Communist Party is vacuuming up all kinds of communication, location, behavior, health, and financial data from citizens via apps like WeChat and Alipay and beginning to sort through all of that data to understand who are good citizens and who are bad. There are many different “social credit” experiments happening across China where companies or municipalities are taking personal data and using it to score people according not just to their financial responsibility but also political loyalty. And this is beginning in some areas to dictate what kind of basic goods and services you can have — fast internet, a good rate on a mortgage, the ability to buy a plane ticket, leave the country, or send your kids to a good school. This technology isn’t perfect — the New York Times described it right now as more Kafkaesque than Orwellian — but Orwellian is certainly the goal, and this centralized surveillance tech is now being exported to countries like Venezuela. So while I’m interested in the potential of bitcoin and the other decentralized technology that I mentioned above to provide alternative models for us to scale our societies while preserving our freedoms and privacy, I’m fearful of most mainstream tech from a human rights point of view. Certainly, it’s amazing that we can communicate so effortlessly around the world, and that such a large percentage of humans have access to a cell phone, but increasingly, the control of all of these communications, devices, and data is being centralized and that’s not good. In fact, Harari has said that “if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship… then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.” Amen to that.

I wrote recently a take on the Chinese system and ‘The Two Worlds Data Infrastructure‘ for Epsilon Theory. What would be your take, builds, challenges to this?

Neville, I really appreciate your take on this. I also believe we are at a crossroads, where we could head down one of these two paths, either a very centralized world where all of our communications and transactions are surveilled, censored, and policed; or a more decentralized one, where we preserve some freedoms and privacy. And unfortunately, we don’t need to run a thought experiment to see what might happen if we go down the centralized road. There are hundreds of millions of people in China who are living through this experiment right now. The Financial Times ran an interview with a 23-year-old Chinese millennial, and she said that she wasn’t sure if she was living in a futuristic society, or if she was building a cage for herself, which is about right. I am happy to see a lot of people making noise about why our current data infrastructure is bad — and not just in China, but here in the United States and elsewhere, too. Obviously, centralized data storage exposes us to many kinds of vulnerabilities, ranging from Equifax-style hacking to Facebook-style manipulation. There are a lot of sharp minds speaking loudly about the problems of our current system, including Tristan Harris, Jaron Lanier, and Renee DiResta. And I do agree with you that ownership of data will be key to providing an alternative to the WeChat model. Where I might challenge you is to consider that bitcoin may play a key role in all of this. If bitcoin is the world’s first censorship-resistant network — then what might we be able to build on top of it? That’s one of the most important questions facing today’s engineers.

Could you talk about the recent ‘Flash Drives for Freedom’ project. What is it? How did it come about? What impact has it had?

10 years ago HRF started working with North Korean defectors. People who had risked their lives to escape hell on earth in North Korea and traveled thousands of miles through China (without speaking the language and with all the trappings of modernity being completely alien to them) to make it to freedom at a South Korean embassy in a country like Thailand or Mongolia. People who had resettled in South Korea, found freedom, and then decided to help those they left behind. After several years of working with many different defector-led organizations, we decided that arguably the most important thing we could do was help get more outside information into North Korea. It’s difficult to imagine a better future for people in North Korea, but its impossible to imagine a better one where they are kept under the same kind of total brainwashing invented by the Kim dynasty. The information monopoly must be broken. So we started supporting groups like the North Korea Strategy Center, led by Kang Chol-hwan, whose incredible work is described in this epic Andy Greenberg WIRED cover story. They were taking USB sticks, loading them up with films, interviews, books, and articles, and sending them into North Korea via the black markets on the Chinese border. In many ways, it was a similar project to the work we once did in Cuba. But NKSC and the other organizations had shockingly little support. To this day, they don’t receive any money from the South Korean government. So we decided to see if we could help. In 2014 we organized the world’s first hackathon for North Korea (as seen on Fareed Zakaria), and, in late 2015, gathered a small group of Silicon Valley leaders to brainstorm the best way of getting outside information in. The solution? A flash drive drive. My colleague Jim Warnock came up with the title “Flash Drives for Freedom”, a team at Leo Burnett did some pro-bono creative design, and we launched at SXSW 2016. Since then, we’ve sent more than 70,000 USB sticks into North Korea, reaching hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) of people. You can watch a video about the impact and learn how to send us your flash drives here.

I read the columns Jamal Khashoggi wrote while attending HRF’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway just months before he died, that you then translated. They are really powerful and important words. What, in your view, are the implications of the murder of Khashoggi and the US and others’ response to it?

Jamal was on the one hand inspired by the Oslo Freedom Forum, and on the other hand, depressed. He told friends that he loved hearing the stories of so many activists and learning about so many similar struggles around the world. From Oslo, he even called an editor friend of his to pitch an idea to put together a new publication that would assemble investigative journalism from across the Arab World. At the same time, he was frustrated by the fact that so little was being done to help these people. He focused particularly on Leyla Yunus, an incredibly brave human rights activist from Azerbaijan, who had been jailed, tortured, and even had her home destroyed by the dictatorship for her peaceful activism. You can watch her Oslo testimony here. When she shows a photo of what she looked like before her arrest, and then shows the photo of her after her release, it’s impossible not to gasp. And Jamal was right there with us, yelling in his mind, why can’t we help this person? The good news is that, through HRF’s work, we are helping people like Leyla. In fact, in the past few months, one of the individuals attending the conference decided to financial support her organization, which is wonderful news. We aim to spark a lot more of that kind of generosity and partnership through our work.

When we heard the news about Jamal’s disappearance — and then later, the grisly details — we were of course devastated. It was initially shocking that the Saudi regime would do something so brazen. As it turns out, they were sending a loud message to all Saudi journalists and dissidents: don’t mess with us. And now, we’ve found out, tragically, that MBS has been torturing the women’s rights activists that he arrested earlier this summer. The world’s response, of course, hasn’t been strong enough. Politically, the response from the White House has been disappointing, to say the least. Unfortunately, it has been long-standing, bi-partisan US policy to uncritically support the Saudi dictatorship in exchange for resource and security guarantees. Realistically, we can’t expect that to change. But maybe the private sector can help make a difference. The business community initially made a lot of noise about not attending a large financial conference held in Riyadh a few weeks ago, and the CEOs of Uber, Siemens, and JP Morgan pulled out. But many attended anyway, and it seems like it’s business as usual. What would be great is if Western companies stopped helping the Saudi regime build blockchain technology. Will IBM stop its collaboration with the regime to build a blockchain smart city in Riyadh? Will R3 allow the Saudis to remain in its blockchain consortium? Will speakers like Nick Spanos remain on the bill for the March 2019 World Blockchain Summit in Riyadh, or will they pull out? Will software developers boycott the Saudi government’s plan to make its own cryptocurrency? Now is time to make a stand.

What makes you hopeful?

The cryptographer Wei Dai once said that “there has never been a government that didn’t sooner or later try to reduce the freedom of its subjects and gain more control over them, and there probably will never be one. Therefore, instead of trying to convince our current government not to try, we’ll develop the technology that will make it impossible for the government to succeed.” I find some solace in that. I’ve seen what encrypted communications can do to help us send messages in a way that preserves privacy. I’ve seen what bitcoin can do to enable censorship-resistant money. We can start to see the potential of zero knowledge cryptography to give people the power to own their data and disclose it selectively to governments and companies. Necessarily, if we believe that an alternative to the WeChat future (which the Venezuelans and Saudis and North Koreans and maybe even the Americans will all gobble up) exists, then it must be built on this kind of infrastructure. And what really makes me hopeful is the persistence of humans. Defeating the surveillance state and challenging authoritarianism might seem like daunting tasks but I wouldn’t want to bet against the world’s dissident community. All of the people I’ve had the honor to get to know through HRF’s work and through the Oslo Freedom Forum have taught me one thing — people don’t give up so easily. Take the example of Ji Seong-ho, for instance. He dragged himself 6,000 miles on crutches to escape from North Korea. You read that correctly. Here is his Oslo testimony. If he could do what he did, then we can all find fuel to achieve our goals.

Finally, what can Epsilon Theory readers do to promote and preserve open societies?

The good news is, there are many ways. I would encourage readers to check out and and contact me if you’d like to get involved. Attending the Oslo Freedom Forum (coming up on May 27-29 in Norway) is a special experience that will definitely open your eyes and introduce you to people who are making a real difference in this struggle around the world. Is there a particular initiative or program or research project that you’d like to see carried out in this area? Contact me at [email protected] and let’s see if we can make it happen. Then there’s the technology and investment side of things, which will come more naturally to your readers. If you’re going to fight the surveillance state, you have to first arm yourself with knowledge. I think it’s an extremely good idea to learn more about how bitcoin works, if you really want to understand decentralization in practice. Maybe the best place to start is by reading or listening to The Internet of Money by Andreas Antonopolous, and then diving into his remarkably educational YouTube channel. A closing thought is that so very few people on this planet have interacted with  technology like bitcoin or encrypted messaging or censorship-resistant storage. Now is your time to make a human impact and a profit by investing in these areas. We talk about impact investing in HealthTech or EdTech or CleanTech, which are all great ways to do well and do good at the same time. What about DemTech, or Democracy Tech? Start thinking about technology and infrastructure that can help challenge authoritarianism, and help the world build it. That’s a fantastic legacy to leave and probably the best thing your readers can do, given their skill set and knowledge base. Now is the time to complement the existing impact investing space by supporting projects that promote and protect civil liberties and open societies. And today, that means protecting our data, money, and communications.

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  1. Avatar for cpdis cpdis says:

    Great interview and incredible answers.

    A relatively easy way to get involved and support the bitcoin/lightning network: Orders of magnitude simpler than setting up a node from scratch and completely independent of the hysteria (positive or negative) around price.

  2. Avatar for cbeirn cbeirn says:

    It seems to me that both Neville and Alex have lost sight of what our estimable pack leader calls the “meta-game.” What happens when too clever by half programers come up with a bitcoin/blockchain configuration (monetary or otherwise) that thwarts authority in a way the state finds existentially threatening? The state pulls the plug on the internet – either altogether, or at least in the form we currently engage with it. Yes, this will cost the state dearly, and yes, it will do it anyway.

    With regard to the Saudi situation, it is crucial to understand that the dispositive narrative is the one that holds sway on al jazirat al arabiyyat which translates literally and most significantly as the Arabian Island, not the Arabian Peninsula. On this Island, what happens in Oslo is of little or no consequence, and what is written in The New York Times or declared in the U.S. Congress is meaningful only insofar as it reveals the extent to which the House of Saud has become dependent on the favor of foreigners. The single most helpful thing that Donald Trump could have done keep Mohammed bin Salman in power was to demand his immediate ouster. Failing that, MbS is almost certain follow in the path of Kings Farouk, Faisal II, Idris, and the last occupant of the Peacock Throne – all of whom allowed the blandishments of the West to distract them from the critical task maintaining their authenticity at home.

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum


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