Amir Taaki: Bitcoin, Syria, Dissident Technology
Amir Taaki was one of Bitcoin’s first-ever dedicated developers and perhaps the one most infamously focused on maintaining privacy and freedom from authority.
In 2014, Forbes listed Taaki on its “30 Under 30” list of technology stars for creating Dark Wallet, the first privacy-focused Bitcoin wallet to include a CoinJoin mixer. That same year, Taaki received even more notoriety as Dark Wallet was twice named in the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) report on the potential money-laundering and terrorist-financing risks posed by cryptocurrencies.
In 2015, Taaki traveled to Rojava, Syria, to serve with the YPG Military, a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After months of fighting on the front, he spent more than a year working with Rojava’s economics committee.
Taaki also created Libbitcoin and Bitcoin’s BIP proposal system as well as DarkMarket, the prototype for what eventually became OpenBazaar, an open-source protocol for e-commerce. Outside of his development work, Taaki also founded the anarchist group UnSystem, which included Cody Wilson, creator of a 3D-printable gun, and Mihai Alisie, co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine and Ethereum.
Now, Taaki has returned as a contributor to multiple projects, many of which have not yet been revealed to the public. Although he is not ready to completely reveal his hand, the dissident technologist expressed a strong appreciation for the people in the crypto community, as well as a loss of confidence in its leadership and overarching direction.
Technology, Open to All
For Taaki, what became a lifelong dedication to building technology free from authoritarian intervention started with an interest in what draws many people to Bitcoin: the promise of open-source development for breaking from authority.
“I happened to be 16 when I discovered the open-source movement, which, for me, was absolutely incredible that there are people around the world who build this technology … which plays a foundational role in our infrastructure and our internet,” Taaki told Bitcoin Magazine. “I kind of decided, I’m going to devote my life to make this dream happen. And it was something that captured my mind for the next decade.”
From his open-source involvement, Taaki found other technologists who were deeply concerned with politics. Of the many ideologies he was exposed to, he found anarchy especially interesting. It led him to ask questions about the nature of society and hierarchy and how a richer and more sophisticated society could be created. He saw Bitcoin as an unstoppable force to this end.
“[At] my first talk about Bitcoin in Amsterdam, it was the EPCA conference … I said, look guys, this is a radical technology. Now we’re here, you can’t stop us,” Taaki recalled. “This is what we’re going to do for you.”
Sometimes, his strong anti-middleman stance put him in direct conflict with other early Bitcoin developers — another group he saw as a roadblock to free and open development as he defined it.
“Gavin Andressen reached out to me and said, ‘I didn’t really like how you were talking at the conference. I think you should stop talking about Bitcoin publicly,’” Taaki said. “Gavin preceded to put up roadblocks for me to participate in developing Bitcoin — to sideline me from Bitcoin. Every time I tried to commit code to the Bitcoin Core project, it was blocked and I realized it was impossible for me to work with those people. That’s why I started working on Libbitcoin, to rewrite Bitcoin source code to have alternative implementation.”
Taaki’s work on the BIP review system was originally intended to establish some standardization for implementations and public review of changes to the code. But he now sees the system as a hindrance on development in Bitcoin that favors the status quo over technological progress.
“The problem is that the culture we initiated in those early days has completely overtaken the mindspace of Bitcoin,” explained Taaki. “That was not the original intent. Originally, the intent was to have Bitcoin be a conservative against changes. But it wasn’t to stop any kind of progress from happening inside of Bitcoin. It’s very poorly engineered. It’s very inefficient. The developments in cryptography that are happening now are going to lead to a system that’s eventually going to supersede Bitcoin.”
Looking back at the Bitcoin community he had been a part of in the early 2010s, Taaki sees distance between the philosophies that first drew him to the technology and the philosophical camps that have been established today.
“What we’ve seen happen since then is that those simplistic ideologies, which initially converged around Bitcoin, haven’t really been able to guide us,” he said. “And so we’ve seen a diversification from these ideologies … There’s this weird, regressive or reactionary Bitcoin culture … and it’s opposed to any kind of change or progress or development or advancement.”
Taaki also noted concerns about the cryptocurrency space he had been a part of years ago now being “co-opted” by outsiders — business- or authority-focused groups who want to take technology out of the hands of the idealistic cypherpunks who worked with Satoshi to usher in the era.
“We’re in this very strange place inside of crypto culture where we’re facing significant challenges to the technology, of it being co-opted by external actors, by actors who don’t necessarily have a philosophical vision or goal we originally had in mind,” he said. “Maybe I’m talking about people like ConsenSys, or maybe I’m talking about central bank digital currencies or Facebook … Bottom line: The only way that we’re going to overcome these challenges is by having coherent analysis, a system of organization and some kind of narrative so that we can develop something that’s coordinated.”
The Reality of Dissident Tech in Syria
After leading the technological development and ideological conversation around Bitcoin for nearly five years, Taaki traveled to Rojava, an autonomous region in Northern Syria where forces were trying to build and defend a direct democracy based on Libertarian, socialist and anarchist principles that promoted decentralization, gender equality, environmental sustainability as well as religious, political and cultural tolerance and diversity.
Despite seeking a technology development role, Taaki spent his first year in Rojava serving on the front lines of a war with ISIS.
“It was mad,” Taaki explained. “I was literally shipped to war, handed a kalashnikov as we were driving to the frontlines and told, ‘Don’t worry, if you’re not dead in two weeks, you’ll know everything there is to know about fighting in a war.’ It was a mad time. It was chaos, but I managed to get out of that position after a few months.”
Taaki returned to Syria in 2019, this time in a role reviewing technical projects for the region.
“I was looking at open-source solutions, like how to build a mobile phone network,” he said. “I also looked at how we could deploy cryptocurrencies. The so-called leaders I reached out to were very limited in their thinking and did not offer much support … There’s so much to consider and if your goal is to create the infrastructure for five million people, it’s so different from making individual accounts for an app-based marketplace you can download.”
If this seems like an opportunity for one of Bitcoin’s most prominent developers to implement the technology in a region that could clearly benefit from it, Taaki emphasized that it wasn’t.
“The reality is if any administration in the world were to say that they wanted to deploy Bitcoin in a region of their country, there is no group that has the software infrastructure ready to set up a reliable financial network,” Taaki explained. “For example, if in Hong Kong, there’s a guy who has Bitcoin, he can extend a line of credit to Syria, and he can cash out to a local pool of dollars. Or people in Syria who have assets like oil can issue futures or upper-finance instruments on that asset so that they can get investment to build their infrastructure. There’s a really great application of this technology, but we’re just not thinking on that level.”
Taaki lists oft-lauded use cases in places like Venezuela, Cyprus and Iran as distractions that keep the Bitcoin community from truly preparing the technology to help distressed places around the world before they are too far gone.
“Those were lost opportunities,” he said. “It’s sad, that’s our failure as a community. And those future opportunities should be what we choose to face and engage in our market so we can develop better technology. But we’re not doing that right now. Instead, it’s a bunch of technologists playing around with blockchain technology. I see no practical basis in reality to what we’re doing right now.”
Building the Dissident Future
In addition to his work promoting a freer society in Syria, Taaki is establishing an academy in Barcelona that incubates new technology projects and offers training in cryptocurrency development. He’s also working on Nym, which he described as an alternative to Tor. Of course, his mission to strengthen the privacy and freedom from authority inherent in technologies like Bitcoin is an ongoing focus as well.
“I’m also working on anonymization of cryptocurrencies and products,” Taaki said. “The same same technology I am building out will be a platform or a library that we can use to build other products like decentralized exchanges, marketplaces and also a generalized platform for issuing anonymous smart contracts and other financial instruments … A lot of people are asking for a new release of Dark Wallet, but I’m not going to release a bad product. CoinJoin is broken but I will develop something that’s better.”
Ultimately, Taaki’s is a working life dedicated to strengthening tools in the hands of dissidents — those who seek to communicate and transact without interference from political authorities, who hope to establish a better and freer society.
“The legacy of the civilization that we live in is a state-based civilization based off of a hierarchical system of control and specialization of labor, which leads to all of the modern problems we have,” Taaki said. “We want to create a different kind of society, which is free, where people have liberty and the natural wealth of people’s creative energies is developed and nurtured. The emerging field of cryptography offers us a power that we can use to create new financial instruments and networks that can be used as a tool to stop state power and control, and create space where marginalized communities can operate outside of state control.”
An expanded version of this conversation will be released on the Bitcoin Magazine Podcast.