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Timothy C. May and the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto

An original Cypherpunk, Timothy May's Crypto Anarchist Manifesto was ahead of it's time

Last week, we learned that Timothy C. May passed away, reportedly from natural causes. One of the original members of the group who became known as the Cypherpunks (which I have discussed before), May was, and is, a massive influence on not just Bitcoin, but cryptography in general. When we look through his Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, it still surprises me how prophetic it has become.

“A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.”

Soon after the release of Pretty Good Privacy by Phil Zimmerman, the technology of cryptography was spreading all over the globe. This was enhanced by the new technology of the internet which allowed for data to be transmitted globally. Cryptography has been progressing at a fair rate ever since the 1960’s, with academics at the forefront. In the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, May highlights the capabilities of such technology and how it would change the relationship between citizens and the State.

The prophecies have been slow burners. However, in the past ten years, particularly since the rise of Bitcoin, many of his ideas have since come to fruition.

“Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner.”

There are a wide range of options for one to use should they wish to keep their communications private. The easiest way would be to use services such as ProtonMail.com, an encrypted email service. There are also messaging apps such as Signal. Both provide end-to-end encryption, meaning that no one can snoop in on what you’re saying. For the more technical minded, setting up your own PGP through Zimmerman’s technology will also allow for encryption of your messages.

Despite this, what May was unable to predict was that the appetite for such technology amongst the general public was lacking. As it has turned out, the majority of people do not mind using insecure messaging services. The ability to use social media for free, such as Facebook, meant that people were either unaware or didn’t care that their messages could be snooped upon. This has changed with the Snowden revelations of recent years, but still many members of the public are not as secure in their communications as May would have hoped.

What May did get spot on is how the State would react to the new technology available.

“The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration.” 

Both encryption and cryptocurrencies suffer from these criticisms from the State constantly. In both Australia and the UK, we are witnessing new bills being brought to parliament limiting one’s right to privacy online. This is ushered through under the guise of security. On the occasion that there is a tragic terrorist attack, the next few weeks consist of governments saying that encryption limits their efforts to protect their own citizens. Both the Australian and British bills have received heavy criticism from civil rights groups about the lengths they are going to in an effort to snoop on law-abiding citizens.

With Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, there is often mainstream criticism citing the use of the technology by drug dealers and tax avoiders. Of course, these issues were and are still prevalent within the traditional financial system. Banks in particular have laundered drug money themselves whilst receiving minimal penalties.

“An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion.”

The idea of such sounded fanciful in the early 1990’s. However, May was once again proven right on this idea. The basis of an Assassination Market was expanded upon by Jim Bell in the late 1990’s, and although there have been no assassinations to date, the Augur platform does allow for such an idea. One of the first use cases for Bitcoin did arise through illegality as well. The Silk Road allowed for the sale of practically any product in the world and was a ridiculously profitable business.

There are clear and discernible nods to the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx in both the opening and closing lines. Whilst Marxist ideas have and continue to affect the world in profound ways, we are still only 30 years into the world of Crypto Anarchy. Sadly, May will not be able to see the evolution and continual battle between individuals valuing cryptography and the State attempting to limits its progress.

When making predictions, one can either turn out to be a genius or an idiot. Just look at the early 2018 price predictions from many gurus. Anticipating how the public will react to new technology is extremely difficult. For the most part, May has proven to be spot on.

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