Garry Kasparov's take on cryptocurrencies’ pros and cons in our digital lives.
Let me present a thought experiment: Imagine you are a dissident fighting for democracy in Venezuela. The government controls access to financial services through state institutions. Those loyal to the regime have access to the nation’s scant resources. Dissidents like yourself are locked out. The government monitors your every move, tracking what financial transactions you are allowed to make and chasing your footprints (both digital and physical) everywhere they can. What’s more, the government even manipulates the national currency, printing money at whim and trying –– like Nero declaring war against Neptune –– to wage war against economics. What can you do? How can you survive and continue to speak out?
But this is not merely a thought experiment. This is real life, for both dissidents and ordinary people all around the world. One answer to this problem is cryptocurrency. For countless people around the world, in an age of ever greater control and surveillance, crypto means freedom.
This is the fundamental lesson I tried to share when I joined Avast at Coindesk’s Consensus 2022 Conference in Austin this June.
Growing up in the Soviet Union, I saw firsthand that the human desire for control has no limits. When I first left the country to play chess internationally, I was ‘escorted’ everywhere by Soviet guards whose sole job was to control my every word, action, or thought. Tyrants who seek to control every aspect of their subjects’ lives are not boogeymen from Brothers Grimm tales, but instead, a reflection of the human capacity for evil. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is not ancient history — it’s the reality for dissidents like Alexei Navalny today.
Because we cannot change human nature, we need to create instruments and institutions that promote freedom and give ordinary people everywhere the chance to escape totalitarian control. As I shared on the main stage in Austin during my conversation with Coindesk’s Emily Parker, for many around the world, crypto means freedom. I know what it’s like to be locked out of traditional institutions by an authoritarian regime, and I understand the value of a financial instrument free from a dictator’s reach.
Crypto offers freedom for dissidents living under government surveillance. Crypto also offers freedom for ordinary people, barred from financial services for any number of discriminatory reasons. In the form of security and privacy, crypto offers freedom for those who want to escape the uncertainties of unscrupulous dictators and central banks.
I began my journey with cryptocurrency when I first heard about it a decade ago from experts at our Human Rights Foundation. At the time, we were trying to address the very problem I laid out at the beginning of this piece –– how best to support dissidents in places around the world where the rule of law is weak and access to financial services determined by your loyalty to a regime. Cryptocurrency turned out to be the safest bet.
But it’s not just high-profile activists or dissidents stalked by government agents. A female activist in Afghanistan recently told Alex Gladstein, CSO at our Human Rights Foundation, that cryptocurrency is one way women in Afghanistan can try to retain rights. When the Taliban stormed the nation, they barred women from opening bank accounts and even from using cash. The men kept Afghanistan’s women isolated and powerless. But crypto was a revelation because it allowed the women a way out –– a way to escape the guns and totalitarian control of the Taliban.
Lastly, crypto offers freedom from the precarity of national currencies set by dictators. It’s certainly true that in most of the developed world, where the rule of law is strong and clear walls of separation divide elected politicians from central bank economists, that many forms of cryptocurrency may be less stable at times than fiat currency. I’m not trying to offer investment advice, but it may surprise you to learn that in many parts of the world, crypto is actually more stable than the wild swings and uncertainties of national currencies. Despite the volatility of cryptocurrency, it is often a safer bet than other options ordinary people can access in countries suffering from hyperinflation, for example, or whose currencies are tied to the whims of dictators.
As I told conference attendees on the main stage, and in my slew of interviews throughout the weekend, cryptocurrency is morally agnostic. Like all technology, it is just a tool: one that humans can choose to use for good or evil. Like many new technologies, it’s vulnerable to abuse because conventions and regulations haven’t caught up. Scammers and get rich quick schemes have been around for thousands of years, so we have to use our common sense and stay up to date when diving into these new worlds. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Avast is one of the companies trying to help people navigate this cyber Wild West. Avast’s teams work 24/7 to shut down crypto scams before innocents get hurt, to warn individuals and companies against the dangers of malware or ransomware, and to maximize the benefits of cryptocurrency while minimizing ways that bad actors can manipulate it.
And after all the interviews and talks with crypto enthusiasts from across the industry in Austin, I had the chance to sign some books and get in a ten-board chess simul. I’m an amateur now and have been retired from pro chess for 17 years, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take it easy on our guests!
The Consensus Conference in Austin showed me how far the crypto community has come. Even in a period of turmoil in the broader industry, interest is very high in all aspects. Walking around the convention center, talking to countless organizations about the intersection of human rights and cryptocurrency, I reflected that crypto is no longer the fringe concept that we’ve been discussing at the Human Rights Foundation for so long. If used wisely, it has become a welcome addition to the freedom toolkit.
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