Swarm Activism Powered by Bitcoin: Free Uber
Interview with Christopher David of Free Uber on using Bitcoin incentives for swarm-based political activism.
In response to the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire passing an ordinance effectively restricting ridesharing services from operating in the city, Uber driver and Bitcoin entrepreneur Christopher David started the Free Uber campaign. He has since led an activism effort to legalize ridesharing inspired by the swarm organizational model outlined in Swarmwise by Rick Falkvinge, founder of the first Pirate Party in Sweden.
We reached out to Christopher David to talk about his Free Uber activism campaign:
Cointelegraph: Ok, so for the uninformed, what is Free Uber?
Christopher David: Free Uber is a grassroots campaign to defend ride-sharing against bureaucrats and red tape. We’ve been focused primarily on Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where a new transportation ordinance has created a turf war between taxi drivers and Uber drivers who are now operating illegally because of the ordinance. Free Uber is an effort to organize drivers and supporters to overturn the law and safeguard consumer choice. We believe adults should be able to make their own transportation decisions without outside interference.
CT: How have you gone about spreading this message?
CD: Mainly through a combination of distributing flyers around downtown Portsmouth and building up our Facebook page, with a little bit of paid advertising. Our flyer campaigns definitely had the biggest impact. On the day after one of our 10-person flyer distribution events, we’d hear reports of conversations about Uber breaking out in coffee shops and sidewalks all over the city. We thoroughly saturated the town and got everyone talking, to the point that city officials would complain about our flyers during their council meetings and in the newspaper. We definitely got our message out.
CT: How is this whole operation funded?
CD: As an independent entity with no legal structure or bank account, crowdfunding in bitcoin was the logical choice. Early on we put up a bitcoin address for a prize pool to incentivize activism, and a separate address for promotional expenses like flyer materials and staple guns. In total we raised about 6 BTC, mostly when the price was around $250. A lot of the activism payouts were sent when the price was up over $400, so we got extra bang for the bitcoin.
CT: So this was entirely crowdfunded by Bitcoin?
CT: What drew you do using Bitcoin?
CD: I got turned onto bitcoin back in 2012, interested mainly because I’d been following Ron Paul’s critiques of the Federal Reserve and I saw bitcoin as potentially part of a new monetary system that would come to replace the current one. Using bitcoin for this project was a no-brainer because it let us pay activists quickly with no transaction fees, with all donations and disbursements listed transparently on the public ledger of the blockchain.
CT: How are activists paid? Are they official employees with salaries?
CD: No employees or salaries. I’m skeptical of the salary model and I envision in the future more industries will embrace ‘gig economy' models like Uber. Nonprofits and activism certainly should, and bitcoin makes perfect sense for the payment model. For Free Uber, activist compensation was calculated primarily using a point system tied to specific tasks like commenting on relevant articles online or giving an illegal Uber ride. We had a website where activists would report tasks and see everyone’s point totals on a public leaderboard. People could request a payout at any time. For some special events we would announce a guaranteed prize pool of say 1 BTC that would be divvied up to attendees. No one got ever more than a couple hundred dollars worth of bitcoin in total, but we think the minimal prizes we were able to offer people definitely made it easier for people to get involved and stay involved.
CT: Were all donations anonymous?
CD: About half the donations were anonymous, though some people let us know when they donated so we knew who they were and could thank them.
CT: How do you view this method of activism funding measures up next to a traditional nonprofit model?
CD: Point-based gamification incentivized with bitcoin micropayments could revolutionize nonprofits in the exact same way that gig economy models like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk are slashing costs for companies needing repetitive data tasks. So far no one has cracked the nut on how to apply a similar gig economy model to nonprofits and cause organizations in a scalable fashion. But I think we have.
CT: Are there any challenges presented by a non-traditional model that doesn't have the same yearly budget and operating expenses to go by?
CD: The greatest challenges come from operating in a legal gray area, or sometimes directly against the law. Technology is evolving faster than government regulation can keep up. That's a good thing for human progress, but can be uncomfortable for the entrepreneurs on the bleeding edge who can face penalties or jail time. And the number of investors or users willing to join you on that bleeding edge can be severely limited compared to those operating in the false security of government control. The challenge is to capture enough margin on that bleeding edge to build a bridge back to the ordinary world, as Uber is doing to great success. They risk a lot, yet stand to gain a lot.
CT: Has this funding model proved effective in getting activists to take action?
CD: Yes, our approach was successful enough that we had to stop promoting the incentive system to new people because we had so thoroughly saturated Portsmouth with our message. On the days that we assigned a point value to each flyer posted, we had some activists drive from an hour away to come help. We also had online activists seemingly crawling out of woodwork to pitch in, most of whom reported their tasks anonymously. We don’t know who all those people are; in fact some of them could even have been from other countries. I do know we wouldn’t have gotten near as much activism done without the gamified incentives tied to our bitcoin prize pool. Plenty of people love to volunteer for free and that’s great, but it’s nice to be able to offer folks a little something for their time. It makes activism more sustainable and can help prevent people from ‘burning out', a problem we see a lot in activist communities. Our next step is to streamline and systematize these processes, then scale out to other geographic areas across New Hampshire and beyond. We’re focused now on the ride-sharing fight as a test case. Bitcoin plays a useful role in our approach to that fight. But moving forward we’re even more excited to build gamified activism support systems using smart contracts on blockchain 2.0s like Ethereum. The idea is to build on that bleeding edge a decentralized army of decentralizers: activists empowered with blockchain technology to flow like water around any obstacles to innovation. We are closer to that future than you might think.
Cointelegraph also spoke to two of Free Uber’s donors about their experience using Bitcoin to fund activism through this non-traditional model. Tom Hudson considers himself a Bitcoin beginner, while Kyle Mohney considers himself to be experienced.
Ease of use
Mohney particularly liked how the donation process was more streamlined.
“Of course there is a setup process for both BTC and traditional accounts. But once you've established an account, BTC is far easier to use.”
Hudson also preferred the privacy that comes with using Bitcoin as opposed to traditional methods.
“Purely from a standpoint speed and ease, it's more efficient. You either scan the QR code or copy the address and send the money. No need to enter name, address, credit card, etc., etc.”
Transparency and accountability to donors
Finally, the public reward-based incentive system’s transparency impressed Hudson.
“Outside of this realm, what is nice is the ability, if one wished, is the ability to see where the money gets spent by the charity. You have access to their ledger. While it's not 100% transparent, it does put the ability to hold the charity to standards of accountability that otherwise are not existent.”
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