Whether they know it or not, people who buy bitcoin are strengthening a tool for protecting human rights. This still relatively new form of electronic money is censorship-resistant, seizure-resistant, borderless, permissionless, pseudonymous, programmable, and peer-to-peer.
In bitcoin, transactions don't go through banks or financial intermediaries. They travel directly from one person to another.
Payment processing is done not by a regulated company such as Visa or Mastercard but by a decentralized global software network. Storage is handled not by a bank but by the users themselves.
Bitcoin issuance isn't determined by central bankers. The currency's creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, set it to have an ultimate limit of 21 million. No one can ever print more.
Bitcoin transactions can't be stopped, and you don't need to reveal your name or address or telephone number to participate. You just need internet access.
In 2017, the economist Paul Krugman described bitcoin as "some fancy technological thing that nobody really understands. There's been no demonstration yet that it actually is helpful in conducting economic transactions. There's no anchor for its value."
Krugman lives in a sheltered environment in a liberal democracy with constitutional protections. His native currency is globally dominant and relatively stable. It's easy for him to open a bank account, to use a mobile app to pay bills, or to grow his wealth by investing in real estate or stocks.
But not everyone has that level of privilege. Around 4.2 billion people live under authoritarian regimes that use money as a tool for surveillance and state control. Their currency is often debased, and they are, for the most part, cut off from the international system that Krugman enjoys. For them, saving and transacting outside the government's purview isn't shady business. It's a way to preserve their freedoms.
In China, if you type or utter one wrong word, the Communist Party might eliminate your financial services. This devastating outcome creates a chilling effect for dissidents and creative minds, who are forced to use the country's increasingly centralized digital economy.
Over the past few months in Belarus and Nigeria, nationwide protests have broken out against tyranny and corruption. In both places, activists raising money to support the democracy movement have had their bank accounts frozen.
Just a few days ago, in Burma's latest coup, the military shut down the banking system and turned off the ATMs.
For activists living under state repression, bitcoin provides a way to preserve their money in cyberspace, locked away by encryption, safe from devaluation, in a network that has never been hacked. For them, it's digital cash and digital gold rolled into one.
And in Cuba, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, Argentina, Palestine, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, bitcoin is catching on and helping people escape tyranny and currency collapse.
In the past few months, Belarusian activists have used bitcoin to defy the regime by sending more than 3 million dollars of unstoppable money directly to striking workers, who then convert it locally to rubles in peer-to-peer marketplaces to feed their families as they protest the country's dictatorship.
In October, a feminist coalition in Nigeria raised the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars in bitcoin to buy gas masks and protest equipment as activist bank accounts were being turned on and off.
In Russia, the opposition politician Alexei Navalny has raised millions in bitcoin as Vladimir Putin maintains strict control over the traditional financial system. Putin can do a lot of things, but he can't freeze a bitcoin account.
In Iran and Palestine and Cuba, individuals face sanctions or embargoes because of the misdeeds of their corrupt rulers. Bitcoin gives them a lifeline for earning income or receiving remittances from abroad.
Some Venezuelans, having watched their country's currency evaporate due to hyperinflation, are converting their resources to bitcoin's digital format and then escaping. With their savings secured by a password that can be stored on a flash drive, phone, or even memorized, they've started new lives in other countries, taking advantage of a technology that refugees throughout history could only dream about.
The citizens of democracies also face financial controls, deplatforming, and an ever-expanding surveillance state. But those lucky enough to live in open societies can vote, sue, protest, and write, and those methods might allow them to protect their financial freedom and privacy. The billions who live under authoritarian governments don't have the same options.
Unlike democracy, bitcoin is universally available. You don't need to have a particular passport or bank card or voting status to use it. No government can turn off your bitcoin if it's threatened by your ideas.
We are in the middle of a great digital transformation, a time when cash, one of the last bastions of privacy and freedom, is disappearing. People rely increasingly on easily surveilled apps such as Apple Pay and AliPay—and, perhaps soon, central bank–issued digital currencies as their primary medium of exchange.
Bitcoin provides an alternative to our increasingly centralized financial system. It gives any activist or journalist a way to raise funds without censorship, a way to save despite the corrosive impact of excessive money printing, and a way to teleport value without permission.
Bitcoin wasn't as powerful five years ago, before it had global liquidity. But today, exchanges have popped up in every region, daily trading volume exceeds that of Apple and other popular stocks, and peer-to-peer marketplaces such as Paxful and LocalBitcoins have extended their reach, enabling users to sell bitcoin for local currency almost anywhere in the world.
Maybe you don't need bitcoin. Maybe you don't understand bitcoin. Maybe PayPal, Venmo, or your bank account serves your needs just fine.
But don't write off bitcoin as simply a vehicle for financial speculation. For millions of people around the world, it's an escape hatch from tyranny—nothing less than freedom money.
Written and narrated by Alex Gladstein. Motion graphics by Lex Villena. Sound design by Isaac Reese and Regan Taylor.
Music: "Countdown" and "2049" by Synthwave Goose.
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