Interview: Cryptocurrencies and the future of the internet with Leo Weese

Leo Weese is a Bitcoin activist in Hong Kong, who has been organising Bitcoin meetups in the territory since 2012. WikiTribune interviewed the digital currency enthusiast at the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum to discuss his advocacy of Bitcoin, the future of the internet, and the image problems associated with digital currencies.

Weese begins by speaking enthusiastically about Bitcoin and the potential of the technology to help improve and simplify people’s lives. “For me, there is an enthusiasm using Bitcoin – very simply, just making me feel good about everything.” Bitcoin’s position has improved since 2015, he says, when he was evangelical about the digital currency but there were still few opportunities to use it as a currency. Now, he says, he uses Bitcoin for everyday transactions. Beyond using the digital currency because Weese hopes for it to succeed, “it is still there, it still works,” not merely as an investment or technical proof-of-concept but as a real currency. A potential everyday use case is as an alternative to cash in situations where a buyer might not be able to carry a credit card and might be unwilling to carry large amounts of cash, he claims.

Yet even if he is positive about the potential for Bitcoin to replace cash, Weese is critical of what he calls “useless distractions” within the cryptocurrency community. Some projects are “an absolute waste of time”. Blockchain is “barely an innovation” for databases: the term is employed, often wrongly, only because it buys political and media attention, and ultimately venture capitalist investment. Instead, Weese would prefer for the community to focus on the advantages of the core technology itself as a payment system.

One serious barrier standing in the way of Bitcoin’s adoption as a genuine everyday currency are its regular huge fluctuations in value. Rises and falls in value of 10% or more over a few days are common, making buying and selling in the currency a daily gamble for buyers and sellers. Since last month, the value of Bitcoin has increased by roughly 50%—meaning that someone who bought a good in Bitcoin worth $100 then would effectively have spent $150. Weese does not address this issue, instead preferring to focus on the technical and political advantages of using Bitcoin.

Weese speaks of digital currencies as an emancipatory project that can be of use to individuals locked out from traditional payment systems. “The people who are going to use Bitcoin for this, are people who otherwise have big trouble with payment systems. These are people who aren’t banked. These are people who have a difficult legal situation. They might not legally in the country or might not be legally recognized where they are. They might suffer from structural discrimination.”

Indeed, the association of Bitcoin with online crime that Weese alludes to has proven hard to shake. Nikita Malik, Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism, last year argued that digital currencies use “these new technologies for their own benefit”.

When questioned about the potential for Bitcoin to facilitate illicit transactions, Weese is defensive. “Crime happens in physical space because people are being physically hurt. It happens because people are physically being stolen or being trafficked or being wronged. It doesn’t necessarily happen because information is exchanged online”. Yet if the information exchanged online is money used to pay for human or drug trafficking that leads to human suffering, the information is clearly contributing to real-world crime. Two-thirds of dark web transactions are estimated to involve drugs, a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Money exchanged online has real-world implications, an uncomfortable truth skirted over by Weese.

Of Facebook’s plan to launch its own cryptocurrency, named Libra, Weese is cautiously optimistic. “If they have very good lawyers, and if they are a little bit rebellious and willing to push the limits of the law, I think this can be actually interesting, and actually useful,” he says. Libra is likely to fail, Weese says, if it becomes vulnerable to fraud and charging back transactions, but could succeed if it manages to accumulate a distributed network of people willing to use the currency.

Instead of relying on large companies to popularise cryptocurrencies, Weese is somewhat of a utopian, envisioning a world where the internet and payment systems alike do not rely on a handful of firms. The ideal world hoped for by Weese sees the decentralisation of finance, through the elimination of central banks, and a decentralised internet, where the functions of huge conglomerates like Amazon, Google and Facebook are met instead by a much larger number of smaller companies. “Instead of just having a single Amazon, I think we would have a lot more smaller markets on where people truly trade peer-to-peer, rather than just going to another market.”

Though Weese sees disadvantages in existing centralised payment infrastructure, particularly the transaction fees imposed by credit card companies, he recognises that certain additional services are required to gain consumer trust in payment infrastructures. In particular, he believes that the consumer protection offered by credit card companies could easily be extended to Bitcoin, as an optional extra that sellers could include to leverage additional trust in their business. Rather than the existing system, a “monopoly of a single network that mandates its use,” a protocol built on top of Bitcoin “would be far more beneficial to consumers and far cheaper if it were a competitive market”.

“It’s possible to build these centralized systems on top of a decentralized system. It’s not possible the other way around. If we see something that Visa cannot give us, then we cannot build it on top of Visa. But if we see something that Bitcoin cannot give us, it is very likely that we can build on top of Bitcoin.”

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