Why I’m So Persistently Intrigued by Blockchain

After I changed jobs last September, I stopped doing a lot of digital activism. The break has been great, honestly. It’s hard to fight on NSA surveillance abuses, crackdowns on whistleblowers, and free speech violations for literally years at a time. It was in many ways easier to focus on strategy and the day-to-day challenges of keeping smart people happy in their jobs, coordinated in their work, and highly productive.

The one program area I kept in my docket was blockchain. I’ve published a bunch of different blog posts in the last few months exploring the collision of free expression and blockchain regulations:

Could Regulatory Backlash Entrench Facebook’s New Cryptocurrency Libra?

EFF and Open Rights Group Defend the Right to Publish Open Source Software to the UK Government

Why Outlawing Cryptocurrency Purchases by Americans is a Terrible Idea

Coin Center’s Report Explores Privacy Coins, Decentralized Exchanges, and the First Amendment

SEC’s Action Against Decentralized Exchange Raises Constitutional Questions

I also want to share a bit about why I’m interested in this issue, since my parents find it baffling.

My first job in consumer advocacy was at a scrappy but principled nonprofit called the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. In addition to writing consumer guides about protecting  privacy and cataloguing data breaches by companies, we’d get questions from consumers who were struggling with privacy issues. People could literally call us up on the phone and say, “I’m having this horrible privacy problem, do you have any suggestions?” We’d point them to our guides, or to other nonprofits working in the space, or sometimes we’d explain how to file a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency. A lot of the time, we’d just tell them how to find an attorney, or ask them if they’d be interested in talking to the press.

I remember one individual I spoke to called me after his Paypal account had been frozen, and he hadn’t been able to access the funds he had in there. I did some research at the time, and found scores of other consumers complaining about the same thing. That was the first in a long line of consumer complaints I heard about banks and Paypal, and most often accounts were frozen due to some sort of identity or privacy issues. The message from Paypal was, give us more of your personal data and we’ll let you have your money back. It had this vague feeling of privacy blackmail, not the least because Paypal was happy to let people set up accounts and use the service for a while before demanding more identification.

And then one of my projects, the Chelsea Manning Support Network, had our PayPal account frozen. I had channels to Paypal so I felt fairly confident we’d get it resolved, but multiple conference calls with representatives of Paypal didn’t get us anywhere. Paypal was pretty vague about its reasoning for freezing our accounts, but at least one person I spoke with mentioned Know Your Customer requirements. The Network had been using PayPal to process donations from the beginning, so why freeze the account then? And while most of our donations weren’t processed through PayPal, almost all of our international donors used PayPal. We’d be cutting off basically all our international supporters.

Plus, I worried that PayPal was just the beginning. If it’s PayPal this week, what’s to stop Visa and MasterCard from shutting us down next week?

I think a lot lately about the costs of opposing the government. Chelsea Manning is the obvious example but there are many others. Covering the costs of her initial trial was an enormous, multi-year fundraising endeavor. Adding in the cost of her appeal? It was impossible to raise that much money, especially when she wasn’t in the news as much. And now she’s facing contempt of court charges with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines unless she’s willing to testify against Wikileaks.  I have no idea how the community will be able to raise that much money,

And she’s far from the only one. There are several handfuls of whistleblowers I know now who not only suffered in their careers and had their names dragged through the mud for trying to oppose government abuses of power, but who also had to shoulder years of costly court battles.

The Chelsea Manning Support Network was good at getting in the news, and so that’s what we did. We put out a press release, several reporters snagged the story, and PayPal started getting called for quotes. Within a day, Paypal had unfrozen (thawed?) our account and full functionality was restored. We never did give them any additional access to our accounts or more data on us. It was just public pressure.

But most people who have an account frozen with Paypal can’t put out a press release and get a bunch of news coverage.

After that, I paid attention to stories of people who had bank accounts closed or frozen, or who weren’t allowed to open accounts at all. I documented some of those for EFF, and others I just took notes on with a vague sense that one day I might have time to write a longer research paper on the issue. I also got more interested in blockchain.

There are a lot of things blockchain is not good for. Critics are constantly pointing out all the ways blockchain sucks at doing various things—which is true, it’s remarkably inefficient for a lot of stuff. But it’s permissionless and it’s hard to censor, which means the base technology (if not the many applications on top of it) doesn’t have the Paypal problem.

And the more I got interested in blockchain issues, the more I started recognizing a lot of other digital rights issues. Just like the Clinton Administration tried to ban encryption, there are regulators today toying with whether to ban publications of open source software in an attempt to stop blockchain innovation. Some regulators are scared of privacy coins (digital tokens that have a lot of the privacy-preserving attributes we already have with cash), while other are trying to impose Know Your Customer standards on blockchain projects.

All of which has made me think more about our financial institutions, about the policies companies like Visa and PayPal get to set and the long term implications for the rest of us.

I have increasingly thought that we need a fundamental shift in the power imbalances of our financial institutions. I’ve wondered about a regulatory response, and in some ways I think that’s the purest and simplest solution: everyone should have a legal right to a bank account; transactions shouldn’t be censored by a payment provider any more than the water company should deny water to people it doesn’t like; we need reform of the credit reporting system so people can bounce back from histories of bad credit more quickly; and we’d need real privacy around our financial transactions, because they’re incredibly sensitive and revealing. That includes high standards for when the government wants to snoop through our bank transactions.

But the relationship between the government and the financial institutions that are benefiting from the current system is so cozy, and the literal cost of effectively lobbying in DC is so absurd, that my pragmatic side is skeptical that real legal safeguards will be put into place in my lifetime.

Which is why I always end up mulling on blockchain. Not because it’ll fix everything, but because there’s a sliver of a chance that some version of this technology might be a lever to start righting fundamental injustices in our current financial system.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Our Yosemite Valley Wedding Adventure

Anton and I got married on September 15th of this year. We invited 80 loved ones out into the Sierra Nevada and said our vows on the banks of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.

How can I begin to put into words the expanse of emotions and experiences packed into the two days we spent in the mountains getting married? It was both deeply intimate and almost uncomfortably public. I found my emotions skittering wildly in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

Throughout it, I found my hands reaching for Anton’s arm or hand, found myself tucking against him and looking up into his eyes to see the same delight and amazement I felt reflected back in his eyes. I’d feel anchored, steady, and connected. For a while at least, the pull and expectations of other people would fade behind the deeper connection between us.

This blog post includes details of our Yosemite wedding—the fantastic vendors we used, our vows, the ceremony in its entirety, and a sampling of the photos from the weekend. It’s mostly for me to remember everything, as well as to share with friends and family. It might also be useful if you are planning a Yosemite wedding.

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We’re Not Foodies

I asked my partner what he considered the best dinner out we’d ever had. We were walking on a trail somewhere, and I sometimes use these random questions to pass the time. He didn’t answer flippantly, as I might have expected. Instead, he offered two moments.

First: we were in Brazil, on the island of Isla Grande with its rainforests and howler monkeys and mossy ruins and perfect white beaches. We found an unnamed beachside restaurant with chairs and tables just a few feet from the sand-lapping ocean, a full bar, and a small menu that changed daily. The lights on the entire island would flicker and go out often, casting the whole village into darkness, but it happened so regularly that the restaurant just casually lit candles and continued cooking with a propane stove. I was so thrilled with it, so enamored, that I asked my partner if we could eat there again the next day, and he said we could eat there every night we were on the island.

Second: we were hiking the Colorado Trail and we arrived on day 18 at Lake Ann, a small alpine lake tucked into the crook of a mountain. I had been struggling with intestinal issues for the last few days, and so I’d missed out on the decadence of real meals while we were in town. When we reached Lake Ann, my tummy had finally settled and the view was brilliant.  We had miles of valley below to enjoy and rejoice in before sleep. As we set up camp, my partner surprised me with a can of alcoholic root beer, a decadent treat I love and wasn’t able to enjoy when we were in town. We shared it on a rock overlooking a sun-kissed valley and fell asleep in the tent together.

These two meals weren’t remarkable because of what we ate. I don’t even remember what we ate. Maybe it was ramen (it likely was, at Lake Ann). These meals were unforgettable because of where we were, both in the world and in our relationship. Things were flowing—we were connecting, discovering each other. We were adventuring together, our senses attuned to the beauty of simple things—like a can of root beer on a rock watching the sunset, or a candle on a small table at the edge of the ocean.

I was reminded anew of one of the things I love most about my partner. He doesn’t care about expensive or “fancy” dinners out. No five star restaurants, no waiters, no cloth napkins (or any napkins). Just the two of us and the wonder of nature unfolding around us.


Lake Ann

Toilet paper, Tampons, and Phone Calls: Affording Prison in California

An interview with a recently released prisoner on the financial burdens associated with imprisonment

KT was incarcerated in California for one year over charges related to fraud. She is a friend of mine, but I did not find out she was in prison until she had served more than half of her sentence. When I learned she was incarcerated, I reached out to her family to offer support and began visiting her every week for her last couple months in prison. She was held in Dublin FCI, just a few miles from my house but very far from her home in Southern California.

In communicating with KT, I was struck by the huge impact of prison costs on not just KT’s life, but on her whole family. Seemingly small expenses in prison mounted and became burdensome for her wife and eventually created major rifts between family members, with ramifications that continued after KT left prison.

This interview was conducted 19 days after KT was released in early December, 2017.

Continue reading “Toilet paper, Tampons, and Phone Calls: Affording Prison in California”

Midweek Camping

I started new project this month: sleeping outside one night a week.

It works like this: I come to work extra early, and then I feel less guilty about heading out at 4:30 or 5. I fight through the San Francisco traffic until I reach a wilderness permit station, pick up the permit that’s waiting for me in a box out front for latecomers, then head out to a campsite. I stop on the way and buy a veggie wrap, throw it in my backpack, then park at a trailhead, strap on my pack, and hike out. I pass people on the trails, and they eye my backpack. I assemble the tent, devour half a wrap, let the sun set all around me, zip away the world and stare up through the bug netting at the endless stars or the mist or the clouds or the hillsides. I wake before 6, and I run or I don’t run, and I’m back in the office by 8 AM, slipping into the shower on the first floor, settled in my office chair before 9.

The idea is to get wilderness into my life, in small bits and pieces, whenever I can.

Continue reading “Midweek Camping”

Sierras in Deep Snow

Ignoring the strong warnings of the National Park Service—including my partner, who is a ranger for the Park—I organized an all-women backpacking trip to the Yosemite High Sierras for the weekend of July 4. Normally the Sierras are passable by early July, but record-setting snowpack this past winter meant many areas are still socked in with 6+ feet of snow and ice. Streams that are normally passable by now are violent, uncrossable rivers. Trails aren’t visible. And unfortunately, none of us had any experience backpacking in winter conditions on this scale.

The three of us walked, slid, postholed, stumbled, climbed, and—during one particularly difficult spot—crawled from the Cathedral Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows to the top of Half Dome and then down to Yosemite Valley over the course of three days. It’s a trip that I believed would be on the easy side of moderate when I first planned it, a trip that would have been fine on a normal year, but which turned into the most physically challenging and dangerous backpacking trip of my life.

Continue reading “Sierras in Deep Snow”