Crypto-skeptics have been debating online for years. Now they are organizing.
Every other Tuesday, half a dozen people join a Zoom call and discuss how to expose what they consider a global fraud phenomenon: cryptocurrency.
The conversation is informal and they only speak for about an hour each time, said John Reed Stark, a former government attorney who is on the calls. The group, which also includes policy experts and technologists, has no official title or authority, but regular calls have become central to a new phase of organizing in the movement known as crypto-skepticism.
“It’s kind of a motley fleet of fugitive minds coming together,” said Stark, who worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission for two decades and now teaches at Duke University School of Law.
These minds and dozens of others are organizing into what has the makings of its own industry. Influential skeptics are recording more podcasts to try to poke holes in pro-crypto arguments. Think tanks are starting to devote more resources to doubting the future of crypto. In June, they collected signatures for a letter to Congress criticizing the technology’s potential.
And next month, crypto-skeptics are set to host what they say will be their first-ever conference, a virtual event bringing together people from London, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Scheduled speakers include Rep. Brad Sherman, D-California, chairman of a House subcommittee on investor protections, British MP Alex Sobel, and actor Ben McKenzie, one of the most popular crypto skeptics. most prominent who is writing a book on crypto and fraud. About 800 people have registered to attend, organizers said.
The network even has its first unofficial lobbyist: Mark Hays, a consumer advocate who may be the only person in Washington whose day job is to be a full-time crypto skeptic.
It’s a response to what crypto skeptics see as a crypto movement that has dominated discussions of this still-new technology both online and in Washington.
“Big Crypto is organized,” Stark said. “The biggest problem is that there is no organization made up of crypto skeptics. It’s a huge global network of people who occasionally talk to each other or work on projects, but we have no organization.
Doubters come from a variety of backgrounds, from computer programmers and Silicon Valley founders to legal pundits and amateur podcasters. And all of these skills come in handy.
“When you have billion dollar funds lobbying on behalf of crypto, you’re going to have to counter that by posting the most sordid details,” said Bennett Tomlin, co-host of the Crypto Critics’ Corner podcast, whose daily work used to be detect fraud in pharmaceutical claims. Some weeks, his show was among the top 20 podcasts for tech news, according to measurement firm Chartable.
Skepticism towards crypto goes back as long as crypto has existed. And while skeptics have drawn attention on social media and mainstream media, especially as the value of bitcoin and other tokens has fluctuated wildly. and some crypto companies have crumbled into bankruptcy, only recently have they started digging for the long haul to create a counterweight to the crypto zealots and wealthy defenders.
Unless bitcoin crashes overnight, skeptics say, loud voices of skepticism will have to be heard for a while.
“There are a lot of crypto conferences that are exclusively pro-crypto and don’t bother to ask the questions, ‘Is this a good thing? Should we be doing this?’” said Molly White, a software engineer who documented instances of industry misconduct on the website “Web3 is going great.”
Collaborations among crypto-skeptics have mostly been ad hoc. In March, for example, White organized a group effort to annotate a lengthy New York Times article they considered too credulous.
Stephen Diehl, a software programmer in London who is helping organize next month’s conference, said part of what is holding skeptics back is disagreement over how cryptocurrency will perform over time.
“There are two different schools of thought: one that says it will burn out and collapse, and others that think it needs to be actively reduced,” he said.
“My job at the conference is to bring people from both sides together and find a way forward,” he said. “I can see both points of view. I am a pragmatist.
So far, crypto boosters are unimpressed with the organizational efforts. Cointelegraph, an industry publication that refers to crypto as “the future of money,” greeted the announcement of next month’s symposium with the headline, “Hats Unite at First Conference for the crypto-skeptics”.
The skeptics’ project has become more urgent as officials in various world capitals weigh up different options for regulating digital tokens. European Union officials agreed to new rules last month, and U.S. lawmakers could follow suit next year. In anticipation, the crypto industry went on a hiring spree for lobbyists.
Diehl said crypto skeptics are aware of the need to work across borders, given that digital currency fans view their assets as stateless.
“It’s a large transnational network of people who are interested in advancing politics throughout the Western Hemisphere,” he said.
In Washington, the job of pushing policy forward falls partly on Hays. He is a senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of progressive advocacy groups founded after the 2008 financial crisis, when bitcoin was just a twinkle in the eyes of computer programmers. But these days, he said he spends most of his time not on crisis topics like mortgage-backed securities, but on crypto.
Hays said other advocacy groups in Washington are spending more time and money on research, but he said he’s used to being outnumbered.
“It’s pretty typical of progressive advocacy work,” he said. “As a rule, we are fewer in number than on the other side. And crypto has grown so dramatically that many different advocacy organizations have been slow to recognize it.
Hays said he believes digital tokens “look and smell” like traditional securities and should be regulated accordingly.
On social media, where much of the crypto debate takes place, some cryptoskeptics have opted for a few tactics to try and expose what they believe to be the flaws in the technology.
Liron Shapira, a 34-year-old founder of several tech startups, found that short video clips with bitcoin boosters’ own words can be embarrassing to them. It got almost a million views on a video he posted on Twitter where billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen attempted to explain the practical uses of Web3, a vision of the internet touted by crypto boosters in which almost the entire web runs on the same type of distributed blockchain technology as cryptocurrency.