CBDCs’ threat to freedom put under the microscope at Oslo conference


Central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) are a source of deep concern among the public. That was made clear at last week’s Oslo Freedom Forum. While the risk of governments abusing their power is something that concerns many people, it is particularly true for those who are fighting for freedom under authoritarian regimes. 

If you are not familiar, the Oslo Freedom Forum is an annual gathering hosted by the Human Rights Foundation in Oslo, Norway. It’s a time for human rights activists to share experiences under authoritarian regimes as well as share calls to action for carving out a brighter future.

For my part, I spent the first two days teaching people about what is happening in the world of CBDCs with the help of an installment piece created by the Human Rights Foundation.

CBDC display at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Source: Nicholas Anthony

Again and again, I heard the same response from activists, government officials, and citizens. They would say, “I had no idea my country was doing this.” It also disheartening to see how much the public has been left out of the loop. 

Related: Rushing OP_CAT on Bitcoin could come at an immense security cost

In the context of the Oslo Freedom Forum, it’s easy to see why people would be concerned by these developments. From Russia to Nicaragua, governments repeatedly turn to the financial system as a means to control the opposition. Consider the experiences of Carlos Chamorro, Jimmy Lai, and Alexei Navalny.

Over a year ago, the Nicaraguan government declared Carlos Chamorro both stateless and a traitor to the country. His pension, his home, and all of his assets were seized. What was his crime? Chamorro spoke out against Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship and created a news organization that could be trusted to expose the regime.

In Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai is currently facing life in prison for similar charges. Like Chamorro, Lai did not hold back in criticizing those in power and created a newspaper to help spread calls for democracy. In response to both Lai and others in the pro-democracy protests, the Hong Kong government froze financial accounts and seized assets to silence the opposition.

Finally, in Russia, Alexei Navalny lost his life this year while imprisoned in a Russian labor camp. Navalny established the Anti-Corruption Foundation and routinely criticized Vladimir Putin’s regime. Anna Chekhovich, the chief financial officer at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, explained that the company’s accounts were frozen before any charges had even been made. Worse yet, the government went after both individual employees and those connected to them.

With this context established, it’s easy to see why many people are so concerned. Governments around the world use the financial system as a means of control and the rise of CBDCs offers the opportunity to greatly expand their existing powers.

When it became time to take the stage on the third day, I was able to both elaborate on these concerns and also sit down for a discussion with Charlene Fadirepo and Roger Huang — the authors, respectively, of The Bitcoin Leap and Would Mao Hold Bitcoin?

Charlene Fadirepo and Roger Huang speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Source: YouTube screenshot

As Fadirepo and Huang outlined the rollout of CBDCs in Nigeria and China, a trend quickly emerged: government inefficiency. Fadirepo noted how the Nigerian CBDC was “clunky” when it hit the shelves and earned a less-than-stellar reputation among the public. The official app was temporarily pulled from stores due to it having so many problems. Huang similarly added that “You’ve asked central banks to effectively become tech companies, and in China, this is where you’ve actually seen massive failure.”

Yet, government inefficiency may be the bright side of this story.

Huang warned that there is a risk that governments will try to make up for their lack of competence through force. As he explained, “The Chinese Communist Party derives its legitimacy from its purported competence to rule the Chinese people.” Yet, reports have emerged that even Chinese government employees have not been supportive of the program. Facing embarrassment, the Chinese government may introduce more drastic measures could be in the future.

In Nigeria, more drastic measures already came into force when the government orchestrated a cash shortage. Facing a 0.5 percent adoption rate of the CBDC, the government created a cash shortage that pushed some Nigerians into the CBDC. Then-Central Bank of Nigeria governor Godwin Emefiele heralded the measures as a success. However, as Fadirepo noted, “It was the last straw [for many Nigerians.]”

Related: ‘Open-source’ CBDCs aren’t going to protect you from government

Yet, these stories are only the beginning. If the rise of CBDCs continues, much more is at stake — especially for those fighting for human rights.

Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, once recalled: “If our rice bowls were still in the hands of the Communist Party … people like us would have to keep our mouths shut.” In other words, as Huang explained during the panel, “If they control my income then there would be no way that I would be able to dissent.” Huang added, “A world that permits central banks and governments to control peoples’ income [and] to be able to expire peoples’ monies is a world where that control that Liu Xiaobo feared would happen.”

As Seth for Privacy similarly noted during the discussion, the “Biggest takeaway from the conversations around CBDCs here at the [Oslo Freedom Forum is that] protests, activism, and dissidence become vastly more difficult if governments have total and trivial control of their citizens money.”

The Oslo Freedom Forum is a humbling experience. In a place where Paul Rusesabagina says he is no more than an ordinary man despite saving over 1000 lives in Rwanda and surviving being kidnapped, it’s reasonable to question what impact you could possibly have. Yet, pushing back can be as simple as speaking up.

The majority of people have no idea what “CBDC” stands for, let alone the risks at hand. So in the mission to fight back, one of the most important things that can be done today is to make sure people actually know there is something we need to fight back against.

Nicholas Anthony is a guest columnist for Cointelegraph and a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives. He is the author of The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Attack on Crypto: Questioning the Rationale for the Cryptocurrency Provisions and The Right to Financial Privacy: Crafting a Better Framework for Financial Privacy in the Digital Age.

This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal or investment advice. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

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