The Fight for Cryptography in the War Over SovereigntyA speech from MCON, September 2022
By Ameen Soleimani
I’ll start out by thanking pet3rpan, Yalor and the rest of the MetaCartel folks who helped put on this event. For me, it’s been more like a family reunion than a conference, and I know that’s because of the love and care that Peter and Yalor put into curating the event.
The strongest bonds are forged in a bear market.
When we were planning this event a month ago, I asked for this time slot to say “the craziest shit I could think of,” and they went with it, so here we are. Fortunately, I’ve calmed down a little, so this talk won’t be pure rage, but I do want to get some shit off my chest.
A month ago, I was particularly angry because the US Treasury put the Tornado Cash contract addresses on the “sanctioned persons” list, making it illegal for American citizens to interact with the contracts. The Dutch authorities also took the opportunity to jail Alexey, one of Tornado Cash’s core devs, and have been holding him for a month, with the ability to hold him up to 100 days without even pressing charges. 100 days is a long time. There was no warning, no “cease and desist” letter that explained the stakes of what he could be charged with, just a sudden arrest. This is the probabilistic regulation-by-enforcement regime we live in today, and it’s terrifying.
After they jailed Alexey, the smear campaign started, alleging that Alexey had been working for the Russians. I even saw speculation in chat groups that maybe the Russians put Alexey up to making Tornado Cash in the first place. This is false. I know they weren’t working for the Russians, because Alexey and the Romans were working for MolochDAO, with my personal support.
The story of Tornado Cash’s inception is a funny one. A bunch of us ETH nerds wanted privacy for ourselves, so we decided to fund a team to build it. MolochDAO announced the quest on Twitter, ten brave dev teams nominated themselves, and we interviewed them all and narrowed it down to two, the Tornado team and one other, and we went with the other team. The Tornado folks were so pissed they rage-built the entire Tornado dApp in three weeks, and it was a work of art. MolochDAO happily gave them a retroactive grant for their excellent work, and went on to fund their audits and further development until they raised more from outside investors. There was a whole zk-SNARKs setup ceremony that 1000+ people participated in, and then Ethereum finally had a privacy tool.
Well, it did until last month, when Treasury sanctioned it. And you can’t make this shit up, but the US government actually carved out an exception for themselves to use Tornado. So I want to say to the CIA agents using Tornado to protect their own financial privacy, you are quite welcome.
We are at the beginning of the “then they fight you” phase for crypto. As the saying goes: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” This fight is not unique to our generation. Everything we’re building in crypto today, we inherit from the cypherpunk movement to liberate the use of cryptography and encryption for the masses.
If you haven’t read pet3rpan’s four-part retelling of the cypherpunk movement, titled Before Bitcoin I highly recommend it. David Hoffman read the whole thing out loud and cried, like I did, the first time I read it. You can find the recording on Bankless. I first read it the day Virgil was arrested, and it helped provide some context. I’ll give the abridged version:
Modern cryptography started with Alan Turing, the gay supergenius who built a mechanical computing machine so the Allies could break the German codes, decrypt their messages, and ultimately win WWII. Cryptography was considered so powerful it was classified by the US government as a munition (a weapon), and its export was considered a crime. Fast forward to the 1990s, and we find the cypherpunks squaring off with a surveillance-happy government on sharing encryption programs with the public.
Senator Biden proposed a bill to allow the government to read all your plaintext communications, so Phil Zimmermann wrote the PGP encryption program. The government banned the digital export of cryptography, so cypherpunks printed it in books and on t-shirts and then exported those. The government tried to mandate an encryption chip with a backdoor, so cypherpunks broke the backdoor. The government said that teaching encryption, and publishing academic papers with encryption algorithms, was “exporting munitions,” so the cypherpunks created the EFF and sued the government on free speech grounds, and won. Ultimately, in 1996, Clinton signed a bill to remove cryptography from the munitions list.
“If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy”
-- A quote from Phil Zimmermann’s essay Why I Wrote PGP.
The cypherpunks won, and now have HTTPS everywhere, for everyone. Now it’s our generation’s turn to continue the fight we inherited from the cypherpunks. The original cypherpunks wrote code, engaged in activism, built community, and sued the government, and we would be wise to learn from their example. I was pleased to hear, for example, about Coinbase bankrolling the lawsuits against the US Treasury from six individuals who were users of Tornado Cash. Thank you, Coinbase.
Our battle is not just legal though; we’re fighting for hearts and minds. Our war is a spiritual war, and privacy is not the only battlefield. We demand sovereignty over our assets: the right to use self-custody wallets. We demand the freedom to transact. The authorities just arrested someone for publishing a privacy program to Ethereum. The next person they take could be me, it could be Vitalik, or maybe the authorities take issue with "censorship resistance" as a design philosophy, and say it makes Ethereum more friendly for criminals. In my opinion, we should stand our ground, and remind the authorities the types of things that they have also prosecuted as crimes, including, but of course not limited to: freeing slaves, being Jewish, being gay, holding gold, and exporting cryptographic algorithms.
At the fringes, activists and freedom fighters are considered criminals.
Pussy Riot, who opened MCON last year with a banging underground rave with strippers, famously went to jail for making music videos protesting Putin. The day after she got out of jail she was back at it, making more protest videos. She came here last year, integrated with the community, learned about our tools, and went on to help start Ukraine DAO to funnel millions of dollars in support of Ukraine.
If she’s a criminal, I want to be one too.
Let’s bring this back to the present. MCON 2022. What are we going to do today?
“Well, the same thing we do everyday Pinky! Try to take over the world!”
In my view, what we’re doing here is building hope. With our DAOs, NFTs, and zk-SNARKs magic, we are building towards what we believe is a better way of doing things. We are building a cultural shift towards embedding our values of privacy, sovereignty, and censorship resistance into our running code. Together, with each and every one of our projects, we are creating narratives that other people can identify with, be inspired by, imagine themselves as part of, and ultimately join in.
I think James Young put it really well: bear markets are for iteration. Everyone who joined a DAO and went through their DAO honeymoon period is now a veteran DAOist. You might have thought that the OG DAO lords had everything figured out. Jokes on you. The process is product. Iterate on your governance structures, and then once you make it work, share that knowledge with the community.
It’s hard to know the impact of the tools and culture we build. In 2018, when imagineering MolochDAO, it was a preposterous thought that there might be thousands of DAOs in just a few years. MetaCartel was formed by a bunch of broke, well-meaning crypto noobs, but somehow became the nexus for a culture of ruthless positive-sum folks to collaborate, iterate, and build meaningful tools. It took years of DAOs and NFTs to make anything useful, but this community helped make it happen, and now they are coming. The positive use cases developed by offshoots of this community serve as inspiration for the entire crypto space. Andrew Yang has a lobbying DAO. Elon's brother Kimbal made a DAO to purchase farmland. This community helped make it happen.
I may have been the first to call myself “summoner,” but without Peter Pan, none of this would have been possible. So I’d like to give a shoutout to Peter Pan for being the greatest DAO summoner of all time. The MetaCartel community has come far, and it has done so together. Thank you for your coordination.
I want to conclude with a little note about Moloch. The paradox of “slaying Moloch” is that to gain the power to do so, you have to worship at Moloch’s altar. It might seem odd that Owocki, one of the leaders of the Regen movement, is embracing competition so readily, but that's the sacrifice he's willing to make to realize his values. When Vitalik says "Slava Ukraina" he isn't being a non-violent. He isn't supporting putting flowers in the rifles of the Russian soldiers. He is supporting the noble defense of the Ukrainian homeland against the invading armies of the Russian tyrant. One day, in the not so far future, we could even imagine communities forming DAOs for mutual defense. People may even die for DAOs. We should stay optimistic that it doesn't come to that, but a wise person, in times of peace, prepares for war.
Thank you all for your time!