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Crypto politico – digital liberty for the masses?

3 March 2022

9:00 AM

3 March 2022

9:00 AM

Cryptocurrency, a bona fide buzzword of the last few years, has taken off as a means of decentralising financial systems.

Broadly seen as an alternative to the static, radial network of the existing system – with reserve or central banks at the core and a range of multinational commercial banks acting as conduits to the market – crypto is also being viewed as a tool for dissent. That is eliciting inevitable reactions from authorities.

Cryptocurrency strategies have been tested and refined during the Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa, Canada. Even though the protest is dormant and the streets of Ottawa are clear of trucks, the use of crypto as a fundraising tool (and the push-back from legal and government authorities) looks set to define how popular protest movements take shape in the future.

The vast rallies against Canada’s Covid regulations seen in the nation’s capital over January and February have been underpinned by the raising of crypto funds. The Freedom Convoy raised some CAD 10 million on the fundraising channel GoFundMe, before the campaign was removed by the platform. A significant portion of these donations were in the form of crypto-currency, such as Bitcoin.

The Canadian government sought and received a court injunction to freeze these assets as a means of choking off the protesters.

Currencies like Bitcoin use a multiple ledger system on a blockchain. While all transactions can theoretically be traced by anyone in the network, it is almost impossible to access actual accounts without the specific identification key to the chain. This is known only to the owner, and no one else.

As such, a blockchain account generally cannot be shut down or accessed in any way. Because it is a decentralised network, there is essentially no hub or core organisation capable of doing that. There is no singular body that oversees or controls accounts.

GoFundMe has fallen back on its policies in an attempt to defuse the political implications, arguing the account was shut down because its ownership was unclear.

But, the Canadian government sought to double-down and pressure crypto trading platforms to close all trades. In mid-February, the Trudeau administration announced it had passed 253 Bitcoin addresses onto cryptocurrency platforms, with the view to having them blocked to their owners.

But, it remains unclear how this was to be done or if it was actually done and the government has subsequently said it will be unfreezing all accounts. We may never know.

One crypto platform, Nunchuck, has said it cannot close down blockchain accounts as it cannot access them. The provider ridiculed the government strategy, suggesting legislators find out how crypto actually works, adding, ‘When the Canadian dollar becomes worthless, we will be here to serve you too.’

It is clear that crypto is continuing to erode the existing banking structure and that it will be used increasingly as a fundraising tool for civil protest movements. It appears the test case that the Ottawa protest provided has not been advanced and the extent to which central authorities can effectively block personal crypto accounts remains a moot point. A true test case remains to be enacted.

The ‘epic’ response from Nunchuck has a ring of college prank about it, but it also connotes confidence in the blockchain system to circumvent standard financial structures.

Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the globalised, privatised, economically liberal system that has underpinned the economic, social, and political lives of most of us has been under threat. While few were actually called to account for that debacle at the time, the outcome of the crisis was a series of protest movements in different countries, starting in New York’s Zuccotti Park with the Occupy movement before spreading to hundreds of countries.

While many of these outbreaks have had specific sources, such as police brutality or public transport prices, others have morphed into a broader critique of a system that doesn’t work for most people – as was exposed during 2008-9.

Government Covid responses and anti-war protests following the Russian invasion of Ukraine indicate that many remain in a mood to protest, continuing a more or less linear momentum from 2008.

Canada may have been the first large-scale use of cryptocurrency as a fundraising mechanism for civil movements and it is unclear to what extent authorities could have circumvented its use if the convoy had remained.

What is clear, emphasised now by questions over the value of sanctions on Russia, is that the increased use of new forms of financial transactions like blockchain are going to play a more central political role in coming years.

James Rose is an author, media and communications writer and analyst and a university tutor in media and journalism.

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