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How to protect digital privacy and freedom of expression | Ep. 4

The importance of digital privacy, freedom of expression and civil liberties and how Web 3 can protect them.

Powered by the Filecoin Foundation, The Future Rules is hosted by Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau, alongside top legal mind in blockchain and Filecoin Foundation Board Chair, Marta Belcher. Together with some of the most renowned names in the industry as their special guests they dive into the future and the ethical issues that technology will raise, and how to address them today before they determine our tomorrow. From NFTs, to CBDCs and beyond, the team explores issues of civil liberties, law, compliance, human rights, and regulation that will shape the world to come.

Find more episodes in the podcast series: The Future Rules


In this episode, Rainey Reitman, who is a leading civil liberties advocate and Board Member for the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, tackles the need for digital privacy and how that is evolving with Web3. She takes in financial censorship and how it affects freedom of expression, goes on to how cryptocurrencies can help enhance civil liberties, the issues thrown up by the US infrastructure bill and how changing the way the web incentivizes users could benefit us all.

Highlights

  • Financial censorship has nothing to do with the law: “Our own PayPal account was suddenly frozen. And to me, this was such an eye-opener that PayPal could decide whether or not a legal defense fund and an advocacy organization would be able to receive funds. Now, we were able, through public pressure, to get PayPal to reverse its decision. But even the fact that public pressure was so effective made me realize that it didn't have anything to do with the law or anything like that. It was basically the whims of this payment intermediary, deciding whether or not we could accept payments through their services.” (Rainey Reitman)
  • The problem with payment providers influencing free expression: “I don't think that the banking partners and Visa and MasterCard and PayPal have the in-house expertise to make the kind of difficult, nuanced decisions about balancing rights of free expression, looking at the jurisprudence, thinking about international law, to have a deep understanding of the consequences of basically trying to dictate what can and can't exist online and these are huge decisions, and trying to expect a payment provider who we have not elected to make those decisions on behalf of society is bananas.” (Rainey Reitman)
  • How blockchain can even out the financial playing field: “One of the reasons [financial censorship] has become so problematic is because there's really not a lot of competition in the payment services industry today because even if you do have interesting new startups trying to offer new services, all of them are beholden to Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal. And then there's this big question about alternative systems, including blockchain systems that are offering cryptocurrency, that might basically break out of the mold, and offer a new way and a new approach that is not as beholden on existing financial services. And I'm fascinated by this idea, particularly if it can help prompt better services so that users and websites are not so beholden to these big payment providers.” (Rainey Reitman)
  • Crypto adoption may be a wake-up call for financial giants: “I think it's not only interesting because those [censored] businesses and websites might be able to receive payments for whatever they're offering or donations, which is certainly valid and important, but also because it will increase the adoption of cryptocurrencies and more people will get exposure to them as an alternative path to the existing financial systems. It's going to be a wake-up call for some of these big financial giants that have basically not moved over or really realized the opportunities around serving these other markets.“ (Rainey Reitman)
  • Cryptocurrency can restore our digital privacy: “While cryptocurrency is not a perfect solution to some of these things [digital payment tracking], it's going to maintain more privacy in some regards and less privacy in others than credit card transactions. But there are lots of innovations happening in the cryptocurrency space that have the promise of bringing those privacy-centric values that we had around cash and which have been around all our lives, and they exist whenever we pay for something with a ten-dollar bill and basically port that into a digital future so that we can have online payments, but not give up our privacy.” (Rainey Reitman)

Transcript

Angie: Welcome to the Future Rules. I'm Angie Lau. Editor-in-Chief and founder of Forkast.News.

Marta: And I’m Marta Belcher, the Chair of the Filecoin Foundation. In this podcast we dive into the future of technology and the law. And today we're going to tackle digital privacy, freedom of expression and civil liberties.

Angie: And there is no one better to ask than Rainey Reitman. Super excited to welcome her to the show today, she has fought for end-to-end encryption, financial privacy, rights of whistleblowers and so much more.

Marta: That's right, and Rainey is a board member of the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web and a leading advocate for civil liberties. So I'd love to start by talking about a topic that both Rainey and I love to talk about, which is financial censorship and how it affects freedom of expression. So, Rainey, I'd love to hear how you first started thinking about financial censorship and tracking it.

Rainey: Sure. This is one of my favorite topics, and just thank you so much Angie and Marta, it's great to be on this podcast and talking about these topics, because I think they're so important, and they really not discussed at the level that I think we need to be discussing them. One of the first times I really grappled with financial censorship was when WikiLeaks had their payment platforms basically shut down -  Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, all stopped processing payments even though WikiLeaks was engaged in First Amendment protected activity by publishing leaks on their website. So it was for me the first moment that I really saw this extralegal process, where basically we saw financial intermediaries shutting down and censoring, or attempting to, speech that the government couldn't otherwise have taken offline. 

And then shortly after that, I was engaged in advocacy for the whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who had given documents to WikiLeaks. I worked on her campaign and helped to serve as sort of a leader of that campaign for about six years. But really early on, when we first got started, our own PayPal account was suddenly frozen. And to me, this was such an eye opener - that PayPal could decide whether or not a legal defense fund and an advocacy organization would be able to receive funds. 

Now, we were able, through public pressure, to get PayPal to reverse its decision, but even the fact that public pressure was so effective, made me realize that it didn't have anything to do with the law or anything like that, it was basically the whims of this payment intermediary, deciding whether or not we could accept payments through their services. And that has just - it was an eye-opener for me. And I've basically been tracking instances of financial censorship ever since. 

Marta: It's really quite amazing the extent to which so many websites are subject to financial censorship. This has been particularly the case in the adult industry. And these are websites and social networks that are engaged in perfectly legal speech, and I think it's truly amazing. Do you want to talk a little bit about some of those specific examples?

Rainey: One example that I like to talk about a lot is: one of the biggest online booksellers that is a competitor to Amazon's Kindle books is this platform called Smashwords. It's a way that you can self publish your own books and it was actually started by someone who was himself trying to be a published author and couldn't find a book deal and was like, this is ridiculous, I'm starting my own platform, we're going to publish anybody who wants to write their own books. So it's fiction books. And PayPal basically froze their accounts and told them that they needed to clean up smutty fiction, or else they wouldn't be allowed to use PayPal at all. 

And this was so difficult for them because they had hard-wired their entire platform to PayPal. So, this was disastrous for them. And we were able, I'm happy to say, to raise attention to it. We organized a letter from a coalition of civil liberties advocates and talked about the value of having free-flowing information and not in using this mechanism to basically decide what can and cannot exist in written books.

So this was a case where we were very successful. Since then, PayPal has changed general counsels and I think has begun to take a far more conservative approach when it comes to what types of content they will and won't allow. Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, they're all so intertwined in the ecosystem of traditional payments that we've got three big companies basically trying to dictate what we can have on the internet - digital payments are the default for so much commerce and so much of existing society, I don't it’s reasonable.

Marta: That's exactly right. Access to the financial system is completely necessary for operations of basically, basically every organization or website. And so it's really not that surprising that when Visa and MasterCard and PayPal go to a website and say, we're going to cut off your access to financial services, if you don't comply with our requests, that these websites are forced to comply. And that's exactly what happened, it appears, with OnlyFans. OnlyFans just announced that it would be banning sexually explicit content and they said that the reason is they got pressure from their banking partners and their payout providers. This has been the source of a huge amount of outcry. OnlyFans is a subscription site and it allows artists and performers and content creators to monetize their works. 

And so this ban on sexually explicit content really makes it impossible for many in the adult industry to use that platform to safely earn an income. And again, this is not OnlyFans itself deciding that it wants to ban that content, this is banking partners and payout providers going to OnlyFans and forcing them to make a decision about the content that they are going to host, solely because even though that content is perfectly legal, for whatever reason, these banking partners and payout providers have decided that that is not in line with their moral standards. 

And I think we should really be quite outraged by it. There was recently a little bit of movement - at the very beginning of this year, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Brian Brooks, as he was finishing up his tenure there, finalized a fair access to financial services rule, and so that would have prevented banks from refusing to serve a whole class of customers just because they find them politically or morally unsavory. But, I actually still don't know exactly what happened, but the rule basically didn't end up appearing on the Federal Register and so effectively was put on hold with the change of administration. 

Rainey: I think you're really correct about this, Marta, to me, this is just absolutely appalling because I don't think that the banking partners and Visa and MasterCard and PayPal have the in-house expertise to make the kind of difficult, nuanced decisions about balancing rights of free expression, looking at the jurisprudence, thinking about international law, to have a deep understanding of the consequences of basically trying to dictate what can and can't exist online and these are huge decisions. 

And trying to expect a payment provider who we have not elected to make those decisions on behalf of society is bananas. It doesn't make any sense. And one of the reasons this has become so problematic is because there's really not a lot of competition in the payment services industry today, because even if you do have interesting new startups trying to offer new services, all of them are beholden to Visa, MasterCard and PayPal. And then there's this big question - what about alternative systems, including blockchain systems that are offering cryptocurrency, that might basically break out of the mold, and offer a new way and a new approach that is not as beholden on existing financial services? 

And I'm fascinated by this idea, particularly if it can help prompt better services, so that users and websites are not so beholden to these big payment providers. But unfortunately, many of the big cryptocurrency companies are still relying on some types of relationships to some of these existing financial institutions. And in fact, access to financial services has been a real big barrier for a lot of the crypto companies. And I think it's particularly problematic from a free speech perspective when we think about how we want to make determinations about what exists online - I don't think Visa and MasterCard are the arbiters of that.

Marta: So, you know a lot of these companies and projects and people who have been censored by financial intermediaries have turned to cryptocurrency because they have no other way of facilitating payments. So, for example, the only way to pay for anything on Pornhub is through cryptocurrency. WikiLeaks turned to cryptocurrency. And I think that really underscores one of the reasons that cryptocurrency is so important for civil liberties, which is that it can be an alternative to traditional payment systems in order to fight financial censorship.

Angie: You know that’s so true, because when business funding dries up as retaliation or to force change in operations, that’s financial censorship, and that’s where decentralization can actually be an alternative.

Rainey: I think it's not only interesting because those businesses and websites might be able to receive payments for whatever they're offering or donations, which is certainly valid and important, but also because it will increase the adoption of cryptocurrencies and more people will get exposure to them as an alternative path to the existing financial systems. It's going to be a wake up call for some of these big financial giants that have basically not moved over, or really realized the opportunities around serving these other markets. 

Marta:

Let's talk a little bit about the other benefits of cryptocurrency. One of the things that's the most important thing about cryptocurrency is that it really takes the civil liberties enhancing benefits of cash and imports them into the online world. 

Rainey: Absolutely, I think it's a really important point. One of the things we're seeing is, as we move into an increasingly digital world, our everyday interactions and commercial interactions in particular are being increasingly digitized and tracked. And that can happen every time you are paying for something online, but also every time you walk into a convenience store and use your ApplePay. And this results in an incredibly detailed log of what you were buying, where you were when you were buying at the exact moment in time, which in turn actually becomes basically location tracking and it can also be interest tracking. 

Financial transactions are so personal and present such a detailed, intimate portrait of our lives, that the idea that it's getting collected in a permanent record, that could be shared with not only your bank, but with potentially other third parties, I find it quite concerning. And, there's a real simple alternative that we've had from the beginning of civilization, which is cash. And now increasingly, we're seeing cash getting basically phased out. And there are even initiatives like lots of restaurants are trying to push people away from even having cash as an alternative and pushing them into this far more surveilled form of digital exchange. 

Cryptocurrency is interesting because while cryptocurrency is not a perfect solution to some of these things, it's going to maintain more privacy in some regards and less privacy in others than, you know, credit card transactions. But there are lots of innovations happening in the cryptocurrency space that have the promise of really bringing those privacy centric values that we had around cash and which have been around all our lives, and they exist whenever we pay for something with a ten dollar bill and basically port that into a digital future so that we can have online payments, but not give up our privacy. And I think that is a fascinating and exciting new direction for us to be headed innovation-wise.

Marta: I think that it's really kind of amazing that in the financial world, we don't question the idea that banks and financial institutions turn over our financial records to the government without a warrant, and it's something that we just tolerate because it's in the financial system, and I guess we're used to it. I think there's just this idea that anonymity is bad and that tools that are enhancing privacy enable crime and that we need to have this type of financial surveillance in order to fight terrorism. I think it's really important to emphasize that privacy and anonymity are not bad or illegal, they are absolutely essential for civil liberties. But, unfortunately, we've increasingly seen the US government and governments around the world pushing to extend the financial surveillance of the traditional banking system to cryptocurrency. 

There's just been event after event after event where we have governments pushing this. Rainey, both you and I spent a large portion of the period between Christmas and New Year's working on comments to FinCEN, because on the Friday before Christmas, FinCEN dropped these proposed crypto reporting requirements that would have really extended the financial surveillance of the traditional banking system to cryptocurrency. 

And Rainey, you and I have both been working extensively on the cryptocurrency surveillance provision that's buried in the infrastructure bill, so I would love to get your take about what's happening with governments really pushing to expand financial surveillance to cryptocurrency.

Rainey: One of the things I often bump into is this idea - there's this false sense that, well, I'm not doing anything wrong, so why do I need financial privacy? And, I don't want other people to have financial privacy, because of this vague suspicion that maybe they're going to be doing something wrong.  I love to point to one of my very first jobs back when I was in high school. I was working at a gay rights organization in Virginia, and at a time when you could not donate to a gay rights organization. 

When being gay was not a protected class in Virginia, this was many years ago, you could lose your job if you were a teacher. And I remember how teachers in my school district, they would pay their donations to our gay rights organization in cash because they never wanted it to be associated with them, because they were afraid they would lose their jobs and their livelihood, and that's where it mattered. And I think about that today and how political organizing and we're seeing so much movement around Black Lives and so much work happening to try to engage in a better democratic society, and I hate the idea that we're going to be creating these huge records. 

And it's not just happening around the world in other countries - these are issues that matter here in the United States, close to home. And the things that I think we need to be preserving. Again, cryptocurrency isn't about creating new forms of privacy. This is technology that our grandparents grew up with in the form of dollars. It's not new. It's not exciting. It is as American as apple pie. It is just bringing that with us into a digital future. 

Marta: I mean, that's such a great example.

Angie:  I gotta ask you about this infrastructure bill that's pending right now in the US, and this feeling right now overarchingly how governments have been increasingly expanding cryptocurrency surveillance.

Rainey: I am so focused on this infrastructure bill, because we've just been in the throes of this difficult fight, and for folks who haven't been paying attention to it, or were not living and breathing this the way Marta and I were the last little while - Biden's must pass infrastructure bill, which would basically expand the definition of broker under the IRS tax code, to include anyone who was responsible for, or providing services effectuating the transfer of digital assets. 

And for folks who are in the cryptocurrency community, I think we were all a little dumbfounded because effectuating transfers is such wildly broad and vague language and it really doesn't show a comprehension of how many different people within the larger cryptocurrency ecosystem are involved in effectuating a transfer - from software developers, to miners, to all the other folks, basically everybody within the larger cryptocurrency community could be, in some ways, swept up into a lousy interpretation of this very broad language.

And so this, I think, is part of a larger movement by regulators to basically task actors within the cryptocurrency community to engage in more surveillance of their users and report on that to the government in more rigorous ways so that the government can have more insight into the financial transactions happening in the cryptocurrency space. 

That's what I think the larger movement is. And this particular provision is incredibly dangerous, because it is so broad that I think it implicates software developers and miners and others who would have literally no way of complying with these obligations. They don't have access to customer records, so there's no way for them to gather this information and provide it to the government. And I'm quite fearful that this will have a very chilling effect on innovation in the cryptocurrency space or could even push it overseas. 

Marta: I think this is absolutely part of this larger trend to make sure we have these transaction records that are being reported for all sorts of actors in the cryptocurrency space - there's this push to have all financial transactions recorded and reported to the government, with the idea that this is to ensure X, Y, Z  good outcome. But, fundamentally, it's not about ensuring that outcome, in this case, it's complying with tax rules, which of course, I think everyone should do. And in other cases it's counter-terrorism or whatever it is. But it's not really about ensuring those good outcomes, it's about doing that through mass surveillance and surveillance by default without getting a warrant.

Rainey: It was so galling the way this happened in particular, because the infrastructure bill has nothing to do with cryptocurrency. This provision was stuck in the pay for section, which is where they have to show how they're going to raise revenue to cover the cost of everything else in the bill. And there was some sort of presumption that expanding the definition of broker is somehow going to raise 28 billion dollars worth of revenue, which I really don't understand the math behind that, and that this would help pay for and cover the costs of the rest of the infrastructure bill, which is interesting, because I think what's really going on here is they're trying to make an argument that they can pass this infrastructure bill, while at the same time trying to not raise taxes, and so they're trying to argue that this is going to  improve tax compliance. 

And I have real questions about that, because I don't see how treating miners and software developers as if they're brokers is going to do anything to improve tax compliance. If anything, I think it will shutter innovation and result in less revenue being collected from the cryptocurrency community.

Marta: So shifting gears a little Rainey, you and I are both on the board of the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web and so I'd like to talk a little bit about what it means for the current internet to be centralized and the benefits of working to re-decentralize the internet. 

Rainey: For me, one of the fundamental things that everyone needs to understand about the current web that we're all existing in and interacting with, is that it’s a model that incentivizes surveillance of users, because it's built on the backs of advertising. So the whole modern web, and the vast majority of how it has been monetized, is one that involves a substantial collection of data on what you're looking at, or interacting with, or being exposed to when you're online and then basically trying to create some form of identifier to connect your different online interactions to a single profile, and then connecting that to purchases that you make, both online and offline. 

And that is the amazing circle of life that we're seeing happening in an advertising based ecosystem, because the web that we have now, which is so centralized, is always going to be moving innovation towards more and more tracking of individuals, connecting your different online experiences to a single identity, and then connecting that to your purchases, so that they can basically monetize your online experiences. And I think people  in the cryptocurrency space really understand how powerful incentives can be and how incentives over time can have these really far reaching effects and the effect that we have here on the modern web that we're on today is one of constant collection of data and the undermining of privacy. 

And Web 3 is really interesting because it changes those incentives - it offers alternatives where advertising doesn't have to be the default, and the mechanism by which everything exists, and the push for companies to engage in more and more sophisticated, ubiquitous surveillance, it's really turned on its head. We have this alternative approach that could be fundamentally, radically different. And that, for me is fascinating and exciting. And I think the long term implications of it are things we can't quite see. But it's a fun adventure, right? It's interesting to imagine what the world would look like if it wasn't based on this surveillance advertising model.

Marta: It's true, we experience so much of our daily lives through just a handful of corporations, and we have absolutely no choice but to trust those companies not to misuse the troves of data that they're collecting about us and what we're doing online and who we're talking to. There are all sorts of proposals for addressing those concerns and often those involve heavy regulation, but I think for me, the most interesting answer there is really moving towards the decentralized web model

Rainey: Other thing I think is really important to think about is if we think about the early days of the internet, back in the 90s, there was this constant movement and sort of fluidity around the companies that existed and the platforms that were online, where we would see startups appear, have their 15 minutes of fame and then disappear as quickly as they showed up and then get replaced by the next new thing that came along. And over the years, we've seen kind of an ossification, like a stagnation that's happened in the tech startup world, where we have just a handful of really big players who have an outsized control over our digital experiences and they tend to gobble up their competitors when they're pretty small. 

In fact, that's a lot of startups' long term plan - get going, get some users and then get gobbled up by one of these big tech companies and basically get bought up by them. And I think one of the interesting things about Web 3 is we could see a return to that fluidity and competition where smarter, smaller and more nimble platforms appearing could offer a different set of functionality and features that could attract users and not lock them in, in the same way that we see the lock-in of your Google, your Amazon, your Apple, your Twitter, that kind of thing, and so I'm very keen on imagining a Web 3, where we see a fluidity and competition that actually helps users get a whole wide array of opportunities to basically pick and choose services that are in alignment with their values. 

Angie: That is something everyone should get excited about! Hence this podcast, called The Future Rules. There's no doubt that while things change, the opportunity to define what those changes should be... and must be - defined by us, the people. Rainey I just want to thank you for bringing some really cool insights to the show and to the audience and as usual Marta, great to be with you.

Rainey: Thank you. 

Marta: Awesome. I understand that you're also producing a podcast with our friends over at EFF. If so, where can people find that and connect with EFF more generally?

Rainey: So if you're listening to this on a podcast player, please also subscribe to EFF’S podcast, How to Fix the Internet. We have a new season coming out. We made our first little pilot season during the pandemic, and it was on a shoestring budget and kind of fun, but with this upcoming season, which is coming out in the fall, it's going to be much more highly produced and really delve into some of the most complicated and interesting topics about what what's wrong with the web today, and more importantly, how do we fix it?

Marta: Well, thank you so much, Rainey. 

Angie: Absolutely. You can listen and subscribe to The Future Rules anywhere you get your podcast. And you can find the full series on the Forkast website. So we hope to meet you all here again in the future. Thanks everyone.

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