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Does Bitcoin Promote Human Rights? Analysis

1. Introduction

Inspired by Anita Posch’s (2022) essay, Opposing the Corruptible Fiat System, Bitcoin Enforces Universal Human Rights, I argue that compared to the contemporary financial systems and their fiat money, with Bitcoin, one gains greater financial freedom and rights, assuming one is in control of the private keys. As such, Bitcoin, as a piece of open-source technology, promotes and enables human rights better than contemporary fiat money, euros, yens, and such.

Following the framework suggested by Mathiesen (2014), I analyse how Bitcoin and human rights relate to each other. In specific, I look at

  1. what compelling interest does Bitcoin protect for each right,
  2. how does a given right support other rights,
  3. what new opportunities does Bitcoin create for satisfying this right,
  4. what new threats does Bitcoin pose to this right, and
  5. what institutional arrangements might need to be changed or put in place to respect, protect, and fulfil this right in the context of Bitcoin.

Thus, the essay is structured as follows. First, I introduce the basics of human rights and Bitcoin. The introductions cover what human rights are, how Bitcoin works and what are its fundamentally determined characteristics, as marked italicised. Second, I analyse Bitcoin’s potential in promoting one to realise the given human right – 1, 2, 12, 13, 17, 19, and 20 – in comparison to fiat. Third, I sum the analysis section and discuss policy. Finally, I conclude the paper arguing that to the extent where sufficient and necessary conditions apply, Bitcoin currently promotes all the aforementioned human rights except the right to privacy (12).

In specific, if one possesses the private keys, Bitcoin can potentially foster freedom and equality, economic freedom in particular. However, there is a lack of statistical evidence to determine the full extent of Bitcoin's ability to promote economic freedom. Additionally, further investigation is needed to identify the necessary conditions for using Bitcoin effectively to reap its benefits (refer to the 'Bitcoin Empowerment Paradox' in section 2.1). Moreover, Bitcoin can promote freedom from discrimination by providing inclusive access to its network, freedom of expression via censorship-resistant transactions, and the right to possess property through its confiscation-resistance. Furthermore, Bitcoin facilitates people's freedom of movement and assembly, as long as transactions remain technically private.

1.1 Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), or human rights, emerged after the atrocities of the Second World War (United Nations, 1948). As a foundation for protecting human rights and dignity, UDHR has been a milestone in the history of humanity, and has inspired many national and international laws and policies. UDHR describes such human rights as the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to education, work, and social security; and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It also includes principles such as non-discrimination, equality before the law, and the prohibition of torture and slavery (United Nations, 1948). Importantly, many if not all of the Articles are dependent on one another. For example, freedom of expression cannot be exercised properly without the freedom of movement and association. Inevitably, human rights are things that every person deserves, indeed, just because they are human.

1.2 Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a digital currency where transactions occur peer-to-peer, without a bank or other intermediaries (Nakamoto, 2008). Hence Bitcoin transactions are borderless and do not interest nation-state borders and jurisdictions. Over 15 thousand computers worldwide, or nodes, operate on the network, making it decentralised, much like the Internet today (Bitnodes, 2023). Participants in the Bitcoin ecosystem include regular users, miners, Bitcoin services, exchanges, additional protocols such as the Lightning Network, and developers. Anyone can participate in the network without registration, identification, or special permission, and running one's own node can ensure accurate financial information (Rosenbaum, 2019). As such, Bitcoin is open, public, borderless, neutral and censorship-resistant (Antonopolous, 2017).

What follows is an example of what happens when Aino sends one satoshi, the smallest unit of bitcoin, to Antti. First, she initiates a transaction by providing the amount, Antti's bitcoin address (3QzYvaRFY6bakFBW4YBRrzmwzTnfZcaA6E), and a digital signature made with her private key. Private key is analogous to a password. It is a randomly generated string of numbers and letters, though the user typically generates a 12 or 24-word dictionary password that encodes the same information. Losing or forgetting the private key means losing access to bitcoin indefinitely.

Next, her wallet application then sends the transaction to one or more nodes in the Bitcoin network, which verifies its validity by checking if the bitcoin Aino spends exists and if her digital signature is valid. If the transaction passes these checks, the node relays it to its peers in the network, and the transaction travels through the network with each node verifying it.

Following this, the nodes update their local copies of the ledger, commonly known as the blockchain, with Aino's transaction, which records all past and new transactions. To coordinate the transaction order, a miner node broadcasts a message called a block that states the order in which transactions should be added to the ledger. The miner is rewarded with newly mined bitcoin and transaction fees paid by included transactions (Rosenbaum, 2019).

There are many rules that the nodes in the Bitcoin network enforce. As Andreas Antonopolous said, there are “rules without rulers”. For example, of one of the rules is that only 21 million bitcoin will ever be created. This scarcity underpins the value of bitcoin and ensures that bitcoin cannot be endlessly created like fiat money.

Finally, Aino and Antti need a Bitcoin wallet to interact with the network. The wallets manage their private keys used to create digital signatures and generate bitcoin addresses. Aino created her digital signature with one of her private keys, and Antti needs to use his private key to spend the received bitcoins at his bitcoin address. Once the nodes in the network update their ledger copies, Antti's wallet is notified when the transaction is added to the ledger and he has received the one satoshi (Rosenbaum, 2019).

2. Analysis

The analysis is structured as follows. I describe the given human rights article chiefly, and present Posch’s arguments and evidence, and rebutting them where necessary. Finally, I argue why Bitcoin does or does not promote the said human right.

2.1 The Right to Freedom and Equality

Article 1 states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

According to Posch, a) financial illiteracy, b) poverty, c) financial repression (i.e., inflation, monetary colonialism), and d) corruption cause unequal and undignified conditions for people in countries where money does not function. I agree that a) financial illiteracy and b) poverty creates conditions in which people can botch money. Then, she continues, with a laissez-faire approach to economics, that Bitcoin fixes c) inflation and d) corruption. I will now examine those arguments.

Regarding her first assertion, I agree with a linguistic caveat. That is, Bitcoin does not fix inflation that plagues existing monetary systems per se, though it presents an alternative that does not need fixing. This is but a linguistic difference that I wish to make.

Technically, Bitcoin is inflationary but it is swiftly approaching a disinflationary plateau. Whereas bitcoin is scarce, there is an infinite supply of fiat money that government officials can print arbitrarily. As such, bitcoin is free from inflation. However, bitcoin’s fluctuating prices, as determined by market supply and demand, creates a situation where inflation does not affect the price as much as speculation. Nevertheless, countries plagued by high inflation pale in comparison to bitcoin volatility. Although, that volatility can still be too much for people in the emerging economies who are increasingly starting to prefer stablecoins instead of Bitcoin for saving and transacting (Chainalysis, 2022a).

Notwithstanding the upcoming Bitcoin upgrades that make the public ledger less public, I argue that Bitcoin does not “fix” corruption, because it is a complex social and political issue rather than a problem in fiat money per se. Corruptive manifestations in finance include bribery, diversion of public funds, tax fraud, illicit financial flows, money-laundering, insider trading, ponzi schemes, and market manipulation. Most if not all of these have already happened within the Bitcoin economy as well as the broader cryptoasset economy (Chainalysis, 2020b, 2023). Instead, solving corruption requires promoting transparency, accountability, and ethical behaviour in public and private sectors, and enhancing the rule of law.

Assuming one has the ownership of private keys, I argue that Bitcoin enables absolute control of one’s money, promoting economic freedom. Economic freedom is one’s ability to engage in economic activity with minimal interference from the government or other external forces. However, there is no empirical evidence that asserts Bitcoin significantly increases economic freedom for some groups, on average, compared to other groups.

Notwithstanding, one could argue that Bitcoin can in principle promote economic freedom, under sufficient and necessary conditions. People born in low-income, economically repressed, emerging economies would benefit the most from Bitcoin. Albeit, those same people endure electricity blackouts, unreliable internet connectivity, lack of education, technological know-how and mobile devices. Thus, at the same time, they are the most vulnerable group, and the use of Bitcoin could backfire. People can forget or lose private keys, send bitcoin to a wrong address, get scammed, or leave bitcoin in custodial services that get hacked. As such, when certain conditions are sufficient and necessary, people are more likely to benefit from Bitcoin. What those conditions are in specific, I do not know.

However, where conditions are more favourable, Bitcoin may not be desperately needed, for example in Finland where financial systems function properly. This presents a paradox that I call ‘the Bitcoin Empowerment Paradox’: Those who would benefit from and desperately need Bitcoin the most, are also the most vulnerable to using Bitcoin, and thus ones who may not be able to use it; And vice versa, those who do not benefit from and desperately need Bitcoin, are ones who are not vulnerable, and thus can use it. Using an analogy inspired by an article from Bak, Sriyai and Meserve (2018), digital technology (Bitcoin) can serve as a solution to state repression (financial repression and censorship), but only in countries that are either already relatively free or highly integrated into global markets (necessary and sufficient conditions).

2.2 Freedom from Discrimination

Article 2 states that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Posch claims that Venezuela setting foreign exchange controls, Zimbabwe limiting online transactions, and Indian government demonetising 500 and 1000-rupee notes constitutes financial oppression.

However, this is not financial oppression but financial repression, as per definition. Notwithstanding the incorrect terminology, these examples of financial repression are not related to Article 2, because financial repression in these examples is not discriminating in nature. Venezuela set foreign exchange controls to all; Zimbabwe imposed transaction limits to everyone; and India demonetised rupee notes, affecting the majority. Thus, it is “just” financial repression. Were it to be differential treatment of status in rights in these examples, it would be related to Article 2.

Still, together with Posch, I argue that Bitcoin’s inclusive access to the network promotes freedom from discrimination. Notwithstanding the irrelevant examples, there are relevant ones. The Anti-Corruption Foundation and Wikileaks were forced to find another method to fund their causes because of differing political opinions; People whose nationality is that of a sanctioned country may face significant barriers in opening a bank account abroad (anecdotal evidence); Undocumented people who cannot access banking; And Posch cites evidence that unequal property rights and bank ownership are biassed in sex, favouring men, especially in the global South (Development Research Group, 2021; World Bank Group 2019).

However, Bitcoin does not solve the underlying complex factors that lead to unequal treatment based on a given status, but it provides an alternative financial system where discrimination does not exist. It can be a step toward equality, especially toward inclusive access for money, but alas one step.

EDIT. 3th May, 2023. Discrimination can also occur at the protocol-level, when one transacts with another. That is, because bitcoin is not private enough, its transactions history can label future users. Then, their transaction can be discriminated based on, usually, political opinion, but also on other status. This is directly linked to the Right to Privacy.

2.3 The Right to Privacy

Article 12 states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy.

Posch argues that the anticipated central bank digital currencies may turn out draconian and Orwellian if privacy is not taken more seriously than it is taken today with the surveillance from information technology corporations – and if I may add – intelligence alliances. Posch argues that while bitcoin is not sufficiently private, bitcoin nonetheless provides more degree of privacy than banks, promoting the right to privacy.

Privacy is important because without privacy, states and corporations can monitor people. This can create homogeneous, obedient, and shallow people. This can hinder or even undo societal advancements. Surveillance creates individuals that have no room for personal discovery or to question societal conventions. Living in constant apprehension leaves no room for true freedom (see Cohen, 2013; Rogaway, 2015).

But I disagree that bitcoin promotes the right to privacy. Currently bitcoin transactions are surveilled by authorities. Indeed, Bitcoin privacy by default is atrocious, undermining bitcoin fungibility. Less fungibility implies less utility because services can deny withdrawals and deposits, and censorship (Back, 2016; Seth, 2021). As such, I argue that Bitcoin does not promote the right to privacy.

However, there are cryptoassets that are better than Bitcoin at promoting the right to privacy. These privacy-oriented cryptoassets, such as Monero and Zcash, offer an option for people to realise their right to privacy. In addition, privacy solutions to Bitcoin are coming, such as the Lightning Network and the Taproot upgrade. This is what Posch mentions as well. This means that Bitcoin's privacy can be better in the future because Bitcoin programmable.

2.4 The Right to Move Freely

Article 13 states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state and the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.

Posch emphasises that while people may be free to move, they are not always free to move their wealth with them. She cites a case of a Ukrainian fleeing the war with bitcoin. Certainly, in such a situation bitcoin may save one’s wealth, and by extension, one’s life. Bitcoin can be a useful tool for preserving wealth when migrating, especially in situations where traditional financial institutions are not available or trustworthy.

However, one case of an individual is not enough evidence to warrant the assertion. What may be asserted without evidence, may be dismissed without evidence (Hitchens's razor). Then again, the right to move freely is interdependent with the right for peaceful assembly, for which Posch and I find evidence that bitcoin can promote (see section 2.7).

2.5 The Right to Own Property

Article 17 states that everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

Posch takes a familial approach, arguing that women can own bitcoin discreetly, reducing the risks of their funds being confiscated by family members. Be that as it may, bitcoin does not amend such gender inequal family conditions. Bitcoin would be a niche solution in such a specific situation.

To my knowledge, there is no empirical evidence that the ownership of bitcoin has protected one from confiscation and property rights violations. Governments can use preventive repression, such as financial censorship and mass surveillance, more easily than reactive repression where government officials go threatening every citizen to turn over their private keys (Dragu & Lupu, 2021). Even in countries where Bitcoin has been banned, there have been no reports of the aforementioned reactive repression.

Still, in principle, without the private key, Bitcoin is harder to confiscate compared to traditional money and assets, promoting property rights. One can remember the 12-word password (private key), write it down on a paper and easily hide it, or use a hardware wallet, which requires a PIN code that cannot be brute-forced.

2.6 Freedom of Expression

Article 19 states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Posch mentions loose examples where funding opposition groups and protests with bitcoin could have been useful. In fact, there are nonviolent campaigns, businesses, and non-profit organisations that have received bitcoin, sometimes when other means of donating have failed (Figure 1). For them, bitcoin has turned out to be useful.

Yet, the important question remains how useful Bitcoin has de facto been to opposition groups and protestors. There is no evidence that bitcoin donations have significantly affected the momentum and survival of opposition groups, such as the La Lucha, Canadian Convoy Protest, and the Hong Kong 2019-2020 protests. Nonetheless, the most prominent and pertinent case is perhaps Wikileaks whom the U.S. silenced in an attempt to block whistleblower documents from being published. As a result, Wikileaks was the first organisation to accept bitcoin in 2011, and since then holds over 4,000 bitcoin.

Together with Posch, I argue that Bitcoin enables censorship-resistant transactions, and the free flow of financial information, promoting freedom of expression financially. Money is a form of speech that expresses value. When financial transactions are censored, it hinders or blocks one’s activities and ultimately silences them. Notably, Bitcoin has been explicitly banned in 9 states and implicitly banned in 42 states (Law Library of Congress, 2021). Because of the bans, states are effectively censoring people’s ability to potentially express themselves with bitcoin.

Figure 1.
Nonviolent campaigns/movements, and organisations that have received bitcoin.

Country Advocacy Creation year Nonviolent campaign
Nigeria EndSARS; Feminist Coalition 2020 Yes
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice 2010 Yes
Canada Canadian Convoy Protest 2022 Yes
Congo La Lucha 2011 Yes
Catalonia Catalonia Referendum 2017 Yes
U.S.A. Occupy Wall Street 2011 Yes
U.S.A. Wikileaks 2006 NA
Belarus Belarus Solidarity Foundation 2020 NA
Russia Meduza 2014 NA
Russia Anti-Corruption Foundation 2016 NA
Hong Kong Hong Kong Freedom Press 2015 NA

2.7 The Right to Peaceful Assembly

Article 20 states that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and no one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Posch refers to a Nigerian nonviolent protest named End SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), whose demonstrations were supported by the Feminist Coalition. In 2020, their bank accounts were suddenly closed, and as a result, they started to accept bitcoin donations. Their donations went on to provide food, drinks and other needed support to the demonstrators (Posch, 2020).

Posch argues that freedom of association is closely linked to freedom of speech. That is, if financial surveillance prevents people from expressing their political views while associating with others who share their beliefs, then they are effectively deprived of political power. In addition, to exercise the right to peaceful assembly, one may need to move freely to meet with others in a public place. This could involve travelling from home or workplace to the assembly, such as protest or demonstration. If freedom of movement is restricted by measures like curfews or roadblocks, it can limit individuals from exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

Arguably, bitcoin as a censorship-resistant money can provide basic necessities during a protest, indirectly promoting peaceful assembly. For example, Canada blocked traditional crowdfund methods from funding the Convoy Protest. Consequently, they started to accept bitcoin donations, which Canada then deemed illegal, citing terrorism and money-laundering (Government of Canada, 2022). Finally, money enables access to public transport and ensures accommodation for those who live far from the assembly location or who may have disabilities. For example, for a fear of surveillance, citizens in Hong Kong did not use their metro cards, but instead bought their tickets from cash-only ticketing machines (Hui, 2019).

Both examples also demonstrate why privacy is important as one can be flagged as “aiding terrorists” or “doing money-laundering”, and surveilled for which one spends money. For more information, why privacy is fundamental to human liberties and especially the right to privacy, see Cohen (2013) and Rogaway (2015).

3. Discussion

The internet as a tool is deeply connected to the human rights just as Bitcoin. The internet provides unprecedented opportunities for the realisation of human rights. Just as Bitcoin enables people realise their human rights through financial means.

The Internet Rights and Principles Coalition (IRPC, 2014) argues that human rights should transcend to the digital realm. Reason being that the internet is becoming increasingly important in our daily lives. Therefore, it is critical that all actors, public and private, respect and protect human rights on the internet. Then, steps must be taken to ensure that the internet operates and evolves in ways that fully respect human rights (see also La Rue and Ehrenkrona 2010, as cited in Ziccardi, 2013, p. 127).

IRPC (2014) argued about the relation of the internet and human rights. Specifically, about universality and equality; rights and social justice; accessibility; expression and association; privacy; life, liberty and security; diversity; network equality; standards and regulation; and governance.

This is similar to what Posch and I have argued here. Certainly, if as nascent technology as the internet is considered a human right today, then surely Bitcoin is as well. Given that Bitcoin is built on top of the internet, then surely only by extension it is also a human right.

As far as the rights and freedoms relate to money that would affect the ability to exercise the rights and freedoms properly, the analysis shows that Bitcoin promotes equality and dignity, freedom from discrimination, property ownership, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and movement. However, Bitcoin does not promote privacy as it is depressed by fungibility concerns.

Still, there is no evidence that bitcoin has significantly increased economic freedom in emerging economies; that bitcoin donations have significantly affected opposition groups’ progress; and that governments have tried to confiscate bitcoin but failed. Thus, more research is required to properly understand exactly to what extent bitcoin can promote human rights.

In general, technology can both support human rights and facilitate repression. States and non-state actors can impede human rights through surveillance and censorship, widen the digital divide, and create new forms of discrimination. In contrast, technology can also give people access to information, protect human rights activists, and advance economic and social rights.

Many still argue that bitcoin is a tool only for illicit financiers. In fact, a terrorist organisation Yaqub Foundations and North Korean hackers have funded their activities for harmful ends using bitcoin with additional anonymity tools. Still, in 2022, the transaction volume of illicit finance was at an extremely low 0.24% of total cryptoasset volume (Chainalysis, 2022b, 2023). Frankly, there will always be those who use technology for harmful ends, undermining human rights. The question is if governments should ban a particular technology from the majority if an extremely small minority uses it for harmful ends.

Using bitcoin for illicit activities can ultimately harm innocent individuals, and undermine human rights. However, more freedom equals more responsibility. That is, the more freedom we have, the more responsibility we also have to use that freedom wisely. While freedom can be liberating, it also comes with the burden of making responsible choices and taking accountability for the consequences of those choices. Arguably, there are more people who use the internet for good than bad, and there are more people who benefited from strong encryption and privacy, than not. Let us not let fear dictate our behaviour.

Notwithstanding, this does not mean that policy and regulation should be shied away from; on the contrary, it means that the right questions and right focus should be applied. For example, policymakers in North America and Europe are currently focusing on the ‘definition of Bitcoin’. This is wrong. They should focus on ‘How to avoid illicit finance’, regardless of whether people use bitcoin or dollars. Illicit finance occurred long before Bitcoin came into picture.

Policymakers must be cautious not to build a society without crime and safe from terrorist threats at the expense of personal freedom, leading to a authoritairan, Orwellian government (Goold, 2010). Policy-wise, overemphasising the link between cryptoassets and crime does not help in the effective distribution of law enforcement resources and fails to acknowledge the vast majority of legitimate crypto transactions. Overstating risks and disregarding benefits will not result in sensible policies (Schulp et al., 2023).

3.1 Future Research Suggestions

EDIT. 3th May, 2023.
The Value-Neutrality Thesis asserts that technology is not inherently morally or politically good or bad, but merely a tool (Miller, 2021). For instance, Bitcoin can be used for harmful purposes, like financing illegal activities, or for beneficial ones, such as providing financial access to the unbanked population, or for nonviolent resistance to counter financial censorship, among other beenficial uses.

Many modern philosophers of technology disagree with this thesis, and it is unclear whether discussions about values in technology are simply rhetorical or have substantial empirical support with real-world consequences.

Miller demonstrates how values can be detected empirically in technology. These value-related discussions are important because the enduring nature of technological artifacts like Bitcoin leads to long-term effects that outlast their creators. Thus, this presents an avenue for future research: what kind long-term effects and values endure as Bitcoin evolves?

4. Conclusion

Assuming one holds the private keys, Bitcoin has the potential to promote freedom and equality, namely economic freedom (See also Ajiboye et al. (2019), Brito (2019), and Rueckert (2019)). However, but statistical evidence is needed to understand exactly to what extent it can promote economic freedom. In addition, more research has to be carried out to find out what are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which one can and cannot utilise bitcoin to realise its benefits (see ‘Bitcoin Empowerment Paradox in section 2.1). Furthermore, Bitcoin promotes freedom from discrimination by having inclusive access to the network, freedom of expression through censorship-resistant transactions, and the right to own property through its confiscation-resistance, and bitcoin helps people to realise their freedom of movement and assembly, to the extent transactions are kept technically private.

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