Richard Stallman, the fervent founder of the free software movement, is discussing the term "libertarian" when he stops talking abruptly and says "Hello?"
I tell him I'm still listening, but he explains that the confused greeting was not meant for me. Instead, he says that the voice of a man – neither mine nor his echo – had just ended with one word: "freedom".
"This kind of thing happens a lot?" I ask. I had not heard anything.
"It is said. "It was not a voice that I recognize." He added, "It could be …"
Then a rapid burst of static made his successive words inaudible.
It was a strange accident, but apparently it's not a new experience for Stallman, whose e-mails urge NSA or FBI agents who read to "follow Snowden's example" and play the whistle.
Stallman seems to control all the old school cypherpunk boxes: besides being an admirer of Edward Snowden, he's a hacker of the original generation of the '70s and '80s, a privacy activist and a frequent invoker of freedom. As a result, cryptocurrency enthusiasts could be forgiven for thinking that Stallman was also the bitcoin leader.
He is not.
Before his lecture on libertarianism was interrupted, he said that right-wing exponents who made up a significant portion of the first to adopt bitcoins do not really deserve the label. His pro-freedom views are more "libertarian" than bitcoiners' anti-socialism, "he said.
As we talked, it became clear that Stallman does not consider decennial technology all appealing, for more reasons than politics.
"I've never used it myself," he told CoinDesk.
If this is surprising, keep in mind that fine distinctions are very important to Stallman. For example, he wrote a 9,000 word explicator on the difference between the terms GNU and Linux.
In words 40-ish: GNU, which Stallman proposed in 1983, is an operating system that uses only free software. Linux, created years later by Linus Torvalds, is a kernel. Many refer to packages that combine the two as "Linux", but Stallman insists that the correct term is GNU / Linux or simply GNU.
He also wrote 3,000 words on the differences between free software and open source software. Supporters of both are pushing for the freedom to use, study, change and redistribute software, but Stallman said that similarities hide "a deeply important moral disagreement" centered on freedom and human rights, as the free software movement emphasizes.
The GNU Project, which Stallman has founded, is working on an alternative digital payments system called Taler, which is based on cryptography but is not – forgive the division of hair – a cryptocurrency.
The Taler project maintainer, Christian Grothoff, told CoinDesk that the system is, rather, designed for a "post-blockchain" world.
Concerned about privacy …
It does not even seem that technology has been around long enough to think of a world that follows it, but at Stallman, bitcoin is not suitable as a digital payment system.
His biggest complaint: the little bitcoin privacy protections.
He told CoinDesk: "What I'd really like is a way to shop anonymously from various types of stores, and unfortunately it would not be feasible for me with bitcoins."
The use of a cryptographic exchange would allow this company and eventually the government to identify it, he said. And as far as bitcoin extraction is concerned, it's a big investment and besides, he continued, "I have other things I'd rather do".
When asked what he thought about the so-called privacy coins, Stallman said he had gotten an expert to assess their potential and "for each of them he would highlight some serious problems, perhaps in its security or scalability".
And speaking in broad terms, Stallman continued:
"If bitcoin protected privacy, I probably would have already found a way to use it."
… but not the privacy "perfect"
Apart from this pessimism, the GNU Project Taler shares some aspects with cryptocurrency projects – in particular it aims to fill the same niche.
It begins with Taler's intellectual descent. It is based on blind signatures, a cryptographic technique invented by David Chaum, whose DigiCash was among the first attempts to create secure electronic money. Moreover, Taler's attempt to create digital money that resists surveillance by governments and payment companies aligns it with many cryptocurrency projects.
However, Taler does not attempt to circumvent the centralized authority.
Payments are processed by openly centralized "exchanges" rather than by peer-to-peer miners networks because, according to Grothoff, such a system "would still allow a dangerous money laundering practice".
Indeed, in a break with the anti-government ethos that tends to characterize bitcoin and some of its peers, Taler's project explicitly seeks to block opportunities for tax evasion.
Speaking of this, Stallman told CoinDesk: "We need a state to do many vital jobs, including fundraising, fund education, medical care, medical care, construction of roads, order, justice, including those that are not rich and powerful, and therefore the state must bring a lot of money ".
What a break with the political tendencies of many of the first bitcoin members.
"I would not like perfect privacy because this would mean that it would be impossible to investigate crimes. And this is one of the tasks we must do to the state. "
Privacy in the Taler system, therefore, is limited to users who spend their digital money. They are protected from surveillance because, said Grothoff, "the exchange, when the coins are redeemed, can not say whether it was client A or customer B or customer C to receive the currency, because they all look identical to the exchange".
"Nobody", he added, "knows exactly who has token".
Merchants (or anyone) who receive payments, on the other hand, do so visibly and openly, allowing governments to assess taxes on their income – not to mention harder for beneficiaries to participate in money laundering .
A place for crypts?
While Taler is not a cryptocurrency and does not have a native resource (there is no Taler or TalerCoin), as a new payment installment for existing resources, the system could support cryptocurrency at some point.
Just like the euro (the first currency that will be supported by the system), dollars and yen could be sent using Taler, so it could bitcoin.
Likewise, while Taler is not a blockchain, a blockchain-based system could take the place of a bank within the system.
To allow users to transfer euros into the Taler portfolio, however, Taler's exchanges will have to interact with the traditional banking system to withdraw such funds. Similarly, a blockchain-based system could work with Taler exchanges to allow users to access their cryptocurrency.
Grothoff compared the transfer of bank deposits into a Taler digital wallet to withdraw money from an ATM. The coins in the wallet are stored locally on the user's device and, if a user loses the key in his wallet, there is nothing that can be done to retrieve it, just as the use of private / public keys of the cryptographic space.
Currently, Taler is negotiating with European banks to allow the withdrawal into the Taler portfolio and also the re-deposit from the Taler system in the traditional banking system.
While the launch date on the project website continues to be listed in 2018, Grothoff explained, it depends on how quickly discussions with banks can be resolved. And he said: "The banks they are not necessarily easy or cheap to manage. "
Although, nothing of the traditional banking system per se is essential to the functioning of Taler (except perhaps for regulatory compliance). In principle, the "registry-based system" in which Taler fits could be a bank account or, in theory, a blockchain, Grothoff said.
If Taler gains traction, developers can experiment with different implementations and integrations, using banks or blockchains or any other registration system they prefer. After all, Grothoff said:
"It's free software."
Image of Stallman via Wikimedia Commons / NicoBZH