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Empowering Human Rights Through Bitcoin And Open Source Software

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Empowering Human Rights Through Bitcoin And Open Source Software

To many, bitcoin is simply a deflationary store of value, an investment, or a “digital gold.” To many more, bitcoin represents freedom from tyranny, financial empowerment, and hope. The cryptocurrency has enabled activists from all around the world to raise funds, escape their tyrannical governments, and bank themselves when they have no other alternative.

The Human Rights Foundation established the Bitcoin Development Fund in 2020, channeling over $2.7 million into more than 100 nonprofit projects worldwide. This initiative highlights HRF’s conviction that bitcoin is not merely a digital currency or an investment, but a critical human rights issue. As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for human rights globally, especially in closed societies, HRF strategically positions bitcoin as a pivotal tool for advancing financial freedom, resisting censorship, and fostering empowerment through open source technology.

Insights gleaned from Alex Gladstein, Chief Strategy Officer of HRF, and the founders of various bitcoin nonprofits supported by HRF further reinforce the consensus on bitcoin’s essential role in promoting human rights.

HRF’s Commitment To Bitcoin As A Human Rights Issue

HRF promotes liberal democracy in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. The organization believes that bitcoin can serve as a superior financial tool for activists globally due to the currency’s private, decentralized, and resilient properties. Gladstein explains that the reason HRF began to support bitcoin projects is because it’s aligned with activism. “It’s collaborative, decentralized, and aligns really well with the human rights movement.”

Bitcoin lays the foundation for a peer-to-peer financial system where payment processing occurs through global competition. It embodies the essence of people’s empowerment, offering a pathway out of tyranny. In a thriving bitcoin ecosystem, individuals would possess a currency resistant to censorship by authorities, immune to devaluation by governments, free from monopolization by corporations, impervious to mass surveillance, unimpeded by borders, and accessible to all.

Gladstein emphasizes that “dictators and governments control the financial system globally and continuously deplatform people they don’t like.” Bitcoin solves this problem because no single entity controls it.

HRF’s Impact On Bitcoin Nonprofit Organizations

HRF focuses on deploying capital to open source initiatives that help advance the bitcoin protocol as well as usability of bitcoin worldwide. Gladstein explains the importance of supporting free and open source software initiatives because “it is aligned with activism and it is software for the people.” FOSS is not in the business of creating closed, proprietary software – it’s about the spirit of collaboration.

The influence of HRF’s support on nonprofit initiatives in the bitcoin space is profound, as evidenced by five grantees focused on making bitcoin better, Lucas Ferreira of Vinteum, Lisa Neigut of bitcoin++, Brandon Iglesias of TABConf, Rockstar Dev of BTCPay Server, and Abubakar Nur Khalil of BTrust Builders.

Lucas Ferreira, Co-Founder Of Vinteum

Lucas Ferreira, co-founder and executive director of Vinteum, a nonprofit bitcoin research and development center focusing on supporting developers in Brazil and LATAM, shares how they’re working to improve bitcoin for the LATAM community. HRF has donated over $50,000 to Vinteum, which has been used to support bitcoin core developers, fund all 6 monthly bitcoin developer meetups across Brazil, train and mentor upcoming Brazilian engineers, and set up the first bitcoin community space in Brazil, CASA21. All of these local community-based initiatives help foster important conversation and innovation. One of their grantees, Davidson Souza, is leading the development of Utreexo/Floresta, which aims to allow almost any device to run a full bitcoin node without the need for a large amount of bandwidth or expensive hardware. Because internet bandwidth is so expensive due to monopolies in emerging markets, Utreexo/Floresta aims to make running bitcoin nodes as lightweight and affordable as accessing a website. Developments like these make running and accessing bitcoin much easier for those in emerging markets, where bitcoin is needed the most.

Lisa Neigut, Founder Of Bitcoin++

Lisa Neigut, founder of bitcoin++, a developer-centric nonprofit conference series, underscores the importance of developer education to improve human rights. Through HRF’s grants, bitcoin++ has been able to facilitate developer participation in global conferences for expert knowledge exchange. These grants have enabled the organization to host conferences globally, fostering collaboration among experts and new developers wanting to improve the bitcoin protocol. Notably, developers from Argentina, El Salvador, and India were able to attend the bitcoin++ event in Berlin in October 2023 due to HRF’s backing. Technical conferences enable important conversations around how to work together to improve bitcoin for real people, and that is exactly what bitcoin++ continues to foster.

Brandon Iglesias, Co-Founder Of TABConf

Brandon Iglesias, co-founder of TABConf, a technical nonprofit bitcoin conference that I also volunteer for, highlights the importance of HRF’s contributions beyond their monetary donations. “By bringing attendees from diverse regions worldwide to TABConf, including those who may not have had access otherwise, HRF has significantly expanded the conference’s reach”. Through HRF’s support, TABConf has been able to offer grants to activists from Brazil and Africa to bring in the perspective of folks in emerging markets, enriching technical discussions with real-world problems that can be solved with bitcoin.

Rockstar Dev, Core Contributor At BTCPay Server

Rockstar Dev, a Core Contributor at BTCPay Server, a self-hosted and open-source cryptocurrency payment processor, explains that HRF’s support has directly helped activists and NGOs accept “uncensorable and unfreezable” global payments using bitcoin. Through HRF, Rockstar Dev has been able to connect with activists that rely on the BTCPay Server software to accept donations and payments to their causes. One example of this is EndSars, a movement in Nigeria against police brutality. These activists were shut out of their payments platform, Flutterwave, and could no longer receive donations. Bitcoin was the only way to receive any kind of donation, and in the end, they successfully used BTCPay Server to receive donations safely, securely, and without any censorship resistance. Now, BTCPay Server is used by HRF to receive bitcoin donations from anywhere in the world.

Abubakar Nur Khalil, Co-Founder Of BTrust Builders

BTrust Builders (formerly Qala), a fellowship program that trains the next generation of African bitcoin and lightning network developers, received a $100,000 grant from HRF in 2023. The grant allowed them to continue their 13-week fellowship program as well as sponsor 6 of their fellows to attend HRF’s Oslo Freedom Forum, a conference which brings industry experts and activists together to foster collaboration. Abubakar Nur Khalil, Co-founder of BTrust Builders and a bitcoin core contributor himself, explains that HRF has helped their builders consider the human rights perspective when building, giving them the context to understand how these tools are being used in the real world. More directly, HRF has made it possible for BTrust Builders to start bitcoin developer meetups across the African continent in Abuja, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, and Kampala, which makes bitcoin educational resources available to all of these communities. One of the most impactful initiatives that Nur Khalil discusses is the AfroBitcoin conference hackathon, which is geared toward building tools and products for Africa by Africans to increase adoption and solve practical use cases of bitcoin to address African-specific challenges.

Why Bitcoin?

Bitcoin’s distinctive attributes position it as a crucial tool for individuals confronting oppressive regimes. Each of these founders have a different perspective on the “why bitcoin” question, however they all agreed that bitcoin is the only cryptocurrency that inherently promotes human rights.

According to Ferreira, bitcoin’s essence lies in being “owned by no one, global, community-driven, and accessible to everyone.” Iglesias echoes this sentiment, highlighting bitcoin’s immunity to singular control or influence that could sway its trajectory, a feature not shared by other cryptocurrencies. Neigut emphasizes that bitcoin’s resilience sets it apart, noting its extensive reach, diverse toolkit, and historical trend of appreciating in value over time, distinguishing it as a robust network unparalleled in modern currency systems. She also makes the point that “It’s the only currency that’s typically worth more tomorrow than it is worth today.” Nur Khalil makes the point that bitcoin has an unmatched record in serving as money for the financially marginalized, restoring their economic freedom and empowering them to “continue fighting the good fight.” To Rockstar Dev, bitcoin represents a unique form of money that’s completely non-discriminatory and a currency which all humans can freely opto-into. Gladstein points out that every other currency has someone controlling it at the top, with decisions made without your control. Bitcoin is not controlled by any central authority, therefore distinguishing itself from all other currencies.

Future Collaboration Between Nonprofits And HRF

HRF is bullish on the future of the Bitcoin Development Fund, planning to give out over $500,000 every quarter this year. The focus this year is to double down on non-KYC infrastructure, like noncustodial wallets such as Sparrow and Muun. HRF is also excited to support more educational initiatives such as the Anita Posch podcast, Mi Primer Bitcoin, and more conferences in emerging markets, such as Bitcoin 4 India, Africa Bitcoin Conference, and the Bitcoin Atlantis. HRF also plans to continue to support more development on the bitcoin protocol level as well as the lightning network, the bitcoin scaling protocol. Examples of grantees working on these projects are developers like Glora Zhao, who is working on privacy on the network level or Calvin Kim making bitcoin more efficient on the network level. HRF plans to expand support for all of these initiatives.

According to Neigut, HRF focuses on the human aspect of freedom and bitcoin++ is focused on celebrating and bringing together the human aspect of open source software, built on a bitcoin standard. Neigut looks forward to more developers learning how to improve bitcoin so that everyone in the world benefits.

Iglesias emphasizes that TABConf is a place for how technical changes to bitcoin affect its usage and accessibility to folks around the world. It’s a place where activists and developers can work together to address their pain points that can be prioritized and solved by bitcoin. Iglesias looks forward to making technical discussions around bitcoin more accessible to a global audience in order to hone these discussions on the most pressing issues people face today.

Ferreira notes that Vinteum’s focus for the past couple of years has been to expand their reach throughout Brazil, but with HRF’s continued support, hopes to expand to other regions in LATAM, emulating the success seen in Brazil. The goal for Vinteum is to become a prominent body throughout all of LATAM that defends the interests of emerging markets in the bitcoin space.

Rockstar Dev is excited about their newfound partnership with Voltage to facilitate the integration of BTCPay Server into the web presence of dissidents and NGOs so that accepting bitcoin is easier, faster, and more secure for these entities.

Nur Khalil looks forward to more of BTrust Builders’ grantees attending and engaging in the Oslo Freedom Forum each year. Working with HRF has strengthened their developers’ understanding that people’s lives are in the hands of the products and services they build. By attending the Oslo Freedom Forum, these builders benefit massively “from hearing firsthand from leading activists using bitcoin as a lifeline.”

The partnership between HRF and bitcoin nonprofits focused on FOSS showcases the transformative power of financial technology in advancing human rights causes. Bitcoin is so much more than a store of wealth, it is being used by real people throughout the world every day. It is a currency that is aligned with activism and has the potential to transform so many people’s lives, especially in emerging markets where through grants and support, these initiatives are not only shaping the future of bitcoin development but also contributing to a more inclusive and empowered global economy. As we navigate the intersection of technology and human rights, it is evident that collaborative efforts like these are essential in driving meaningful change and fostering innovation globally.