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30 Nov, 2013 20:05

We need anonymity to make democracy safe – Stallman talks bitcoin

Although enthusiasm for ‘crypto-currency’ bitcoin is expanding, it is not going to save people’s privacy from US NSA spy agency data mining. A truly anonymous online currency is needed, Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation told RT.

Just as bitcoin soared above $1,200 mark, almost matching current gold prices, some 1500 proponents of the digital currency gathered in London to discuss the problems of the ‘crypto-money’ and how it could change the world.

The speakers included well-known freedom of information activists, such as Cody Wilson and Richard Stallman, bitcoin developer Michael Parsons, Cryptoauction founder Daryl Cusack, as well as RT’s Stacy Herbert of Keiser Report.

Bitcoin supporters – from investors and academics, to political radicals and internet geeks – have apparently been keen to discuss the challenges that face the currency, which they believe could become a global alternative for cash.

Big crowd at #bitcoinexpo in London pic.twitter.com/rrWb9ipwBZ

— Stacy Herbert (@stacyherbert) November 30, 2013

Five years since its creation by an enigmatic programmer nicknamed Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin has been recognized as legitimate cyber currency garnering increasing popularity.

However, while more and more online and offline services are mulling accepting payments in bitcoin, the currency still faces uncertainty. Seeing how it quadrupled in value just in one month, some fear that bitcoin is yet another large economic bubble.

Others say that bitcoin remains a very limited medium of exchange. It remains difficult to swap the digital currency for ordinary cash, and it can hardly be used for storing assets due to large value fluctuations.

There is also no central monetary authority for bitcoin. Having one would ensure liquidity, allowing people to appeal in the event that their digital money had been lost or stolen. As hackers are constantly looking for ways of hijacking someone else’s bitcoin wallets, Internet security could also be one of the key issues discussed at bitcoin expo.

However, another issue that concerns people in the wake of the global US National Security Agency (NSA) spying revelations is whether the transactions made with “miraculous” cyber money are protected from a watchful eye.

Speaking to RT from London, where he has been taking part in the Bitcoin Expo, Richard Stallman said that while bitcoin has its benefits, it is not up to the standard of a safe digital currency that would shield a payer from being tracked by companies and, ultimately, by intelligence agencies.

Stallman has been advocating free ('libre') software for 30 years, proclaiming it “the first step” in a quest to “recover our freedom and restore democracy.” According to Stallman, an anonymous payment system is also required for us to start “taking control of our digital lives.”

Richard Stallman's interview on Bitcoin in the free Ogg format.

RT:Is bitcoin a financial miracle or a bubble waiting to burst?

Richard Stallman: Bubbles can happen in bitcoin just as they can happen in housing, or in tulips, or anything that people speculate in. Bubbles can happen, and that’s nothing special or different. Is bitcoin a miracle? I’m not sure what that would mean – there are good and bad things about bitcoin. One good thing about bitcoin is, you can send money to someone without getting the permission of a payment company. So for instance, if you want to support WikiLeaks – which is very good thing, and which the US government doesn’t want to let people support – and has used extrajudicial means to chase off the Internet partially – well, with bitcoin you can do it.

On the other hand, there is a potential problem with bitcoin, which is, it might get used for tax evasion. I’m not in favor of tax evasion, but we have to realize that the biggest and most harmful cases of tax evasion are lawful. Governments don’t dare make businesses pay the sort of taxes that they ought to and they wouldn’t dare make rich people pay the taxes that they ought to. And thus, if we really want to put an end to tax dodging, we really need to change the tax laws so that businesses can’t offshore their profits. Now, we’re speaking from London, and as we know, there were big protests against the offshoring of profits that the UK government doesn’t have the courage to stop.

RT:Why is there so much appetite for bitcoin? What possible advantages does it have over conventional currency?

RS: Well, its advantage is that you can send the money without getting some company to send it for you.

RT:And do you think the recent revelations of NSA spying have done anything for bitcoin?

RS: I have to point out that bitcoin is not anonymous – that’s not part of its design. People don’t necessarily give their names when they do bitcoin transactions, but the government can probably figure out, who is doing the transaction. How are you going to get bitcoins after all, unless you set up a bitcoin mining computer, which is how bitcoins are made, you are going to get them by buying them from someone. If you are an ordinary person, the way you could do it is by paying with a credit card to a company that will exchange government currency for bitcoins. The credit card identifies you, so when you get bitcoins in return, the government can see who you are.

I believe, that we need on the World Wide Web a system for truly anonymous payment to a website. But it’s the payer that has to be anonymous; it doesn’t have to be anonymous for which website received the payment. So that’s what I advocate setting up. We know the technology; it was developed 20 years ago to do this work. What’s needed is business and the social task of getting it set up, so that lots of people can use it.

We must have an anonymous way to pay websites so that they can’t have the excuse that the only way to get any money is by advertising that tracks people. We know that if companies track people, then the NSA or GCHQ is going to look at that data, it’s going to be tracking people through these companies. So I almost never use a credit card to buy anything, the only exception is airline tickets, because they do have my name anyway, so I’m not losing anything by paying with a credit card. The point is, we need anonymity to make democracy safe.