The arrest of Virgil Griffith is now the main topic in the cryptocurrency world. Is he only an innocent crypto advocate, or a dangerous conspirator?
Can you imagine more patriotic act than arresting a national traitor during one of the most important holidays in the country? At first glance, the case of Virgil Griffith seems to be uncomplicated: Ethereum’s developer, who recently lectured in North Korea on sanctions evasion, got caught at the airport on Thanksgiving Day. Evidence against him are clear: he frequently admitted that he had taken part in the North Korean blockchain conference.
However, the conference wasn’t some sort of secret meeting, and it was open for American citizens. The knowledge shared during the event also isn’t a secret, but widely available information. But the situation is changing when the lecture is located in the country known on the international stage as a dangerous warmonger. What begs the question is: where is the difference between sharing knowledge about the technology and supporting the totalitarian regime?
Who is the troublemaker responsible for allegedly teaching the North Korean regime how to bypass international sanctions? Virgil Griffith is Ethereum’s developer, highly contributed to the community of this cryptocurrency. Before he began his cooperation with Vitalik Buterin, he also worked on the Tor2web software and developed the WikiScanner – a database dedicated to link anonymous editions on Wikipedia to organizations responsible for them.
At Ethereum, Griffith is working on developing solutions to make cryptocurrency more and more popular. Although the expression ‘was working’ may be more accurate here because he was apparently removed from the list of group leaders on the Ethereum’s website. The Ethereum Foundation also stated that Griffith’s journey
was only a personal vacation, not related to it.
What exactly was the event that caused so much trouble in the life of this American programmer? Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference took place in April this year, and, according to the North Korean regime, was a huge success. As we may read on the official website, international specialists from all over the cryptocurrency industry “shared their knowledge and vision, established long-lasting connections, discussed business opportunities, and signed contracts in the field of Information Technology.”
As you can see, the North Korean cryptocurrency conference appears to be just a normal event dedicated to free discussion about blockchain technology. However, we shouldn’t forget that it is hosted by a regime that is known for violating human rights and threatening the rest of the world with nuclear weapons. Moreover, North Korean citizens aren’t even allowed to have access to the Internet – so the benefits of blockchain technology are unlikely to reach them.
Griffith wasn’t hiding his participation in the Pyongyang conference. He applied for permission to travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea but was denied it. Of course, it didn’t stop him from going there. He even announced it on his Twitter, inviting adult industry blockchain SpankChain’s star to go with him, for no particular reason (and apparently she made a mistake about which Korea she was going to travel to.).
But Griffith Twitter account is known from trolling, so such an announcement shouldn’t be surprising. Far more interesting are reports from Reuters. According to the news agency’s anonymous source, the rogue programmer was talking with his fellow crypto friends about the idea of mining Ethereum in North Korea.
Such reports fit very well with both Griffith’s reputation and the nature of his work at the Ethereum Foundation. As CoinDesk noted in the article dedicated to the situation, he said that some of his ideas for expanding Ethereum to the mainstream are risky, and may skyrocket the project and may bury it down as well. Is lecturing the North Korean regime an example of such a strategy?
Defenders and attackers
Griffith’s arrest triggered discussion on the Internet about the rightness of his work, and American jurisdiction as well. Both common crypto followers and industry influencers stood up for the programmer. Vitalik Buterin defends his fellow coworker on Twitter although he didn’t mention the refusal to grant permission to travel to North Korea.):
6. So I hope USA shows strength rather than weakness and focuses on genuine and harmful corruption that it and all countries struggle with rather than going after programmers delivering speeches parroting public information.
— vitalik.eth (@VitalikButerin) December 1, 2019
A significant part of the cryptocurrency world agrees with him. Griffith quickly became compared to other examples of blockchain-related developers who also got accused by the United States for breaking the law. People noticed the similarities with Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road founder, who was sentenced to two life sentences, or Aaron Swartz, a friend of Griffith’s. He was charged with illegal disclosure of academic researches, which led him to commit suicide in 2013.
Virgil was a friend of Aaron Swartz too – I can’t help but think of the deja vu here of US prosecutors overstretching the law. They want to put him in jail for 20 years for giving a talk on blockchain tech at a conference in North Korea. https://t.co/p66E2LhwhH
— Mustafa Al-Bassam (@musalbas) November 29, 2019
Griffith supporters defend his participation in the North Korean event as an act establishing a dialogue between nations that would otherwise be in conflict. They also see in it an attempt to popularize cryptocurrencies around the world. However, there are also voices pointing at his guilt. Griffith’s opponents notice that the conference in Pyongyang wasn’t opened for common citizens, so the primary beneficiary of his lectures is Kim Jong-un and his totalitarian regime. Such point of view is presented, among others, by Alex Gladstein, executive of Human Rights Foundation, and crypto journalist Laura Shin:
I’m talking about North Korea specifically here. It is terrible for anyone to provide technical training to the Kim regime. In a vacuum. Regardless of your views of other countries.
— Alex Gladstein (@gladstein) December 1, 2019
Last points on this before I turn in. I see a lot of people being like, Free Ross/Free Virgil. It’s not logically consistent to want to free Ross and also want to free the guy helping the dictator who locks up people along with their family and the two generations after them.
— Laura Shin (@laurashin) December 2, 2019
The complicated matter of the blockchain technology
The situation is still ongoing, and we shall see how it will develop in the near future. FBI agent, who brought a complaint against Griffith, claimed that the programmer told him about his plans for laundering money and evading sanctions. On the other hand, we still don’t know what the main accused’s point of view is. He might actually naively believe that his lectures would not help Kim’s regime, but the North Korean citizens.
In the end, the Virgil Griffith case is a noteworthy example of how cryptocurrencies have gone far beyond the boundaries of the industry.. Both the blockchain and its financial application have become a matter of interest for governments of many countries. To the rapidly growing basket of complicated cases related to the perception of this technology, we may now add one more question: can talking about blockchain already be a supporting of totalitarian government?
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