Wikipedia Signpost: The Wikimedia Foundation's acceptance of cryptocurrency donations

by Molly White on
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Originally published in the Wikipedia Signpost on January 30, 2022.

GorillaWarfare is Molly White, a software engineer and longtime Wikipedia editor. She has been editing the English Wikipedia since 2006, has served several terms on the Arbitration Committee, and is an administrator and functionary.

When the Wikimedia Foundation first began accepting cryptocurrency donations in 2014,1 it was still fairly nascent technology. Cryptocurrencies resonated with many in free and open-source software communities and in the Wikimedia movement more specifically, and cryptocurrency projects tended to share similar ideals: privacy, anonymity, decentralization, freedom.

In more recent history, cryptocurrencies and blockchain-based technologies more generally have morphed into something very different from the ideals of their youth. Some proponents continue to speak about freedom and decentralization, but the space has overwhelmingly become an opportunity for self-enrichment at the expense of others and the environment. Cryptomining operations set up shop in locations with low energy costs—until late 2021, most bitcoin mining happened in China, where it relied on coal so heavily that the resulting coal mining accidents from increased demand contributed to a crackdown on the practice.2 Some of those miners moved to Kazakhstan, where they were using the nation’s supply of lignite (an extremely harmful form of coal) to produce 18% of the global computing power behind bitcoin in January.3 Bitcoin mining alone rivals the total energy use of countries like the Netherlands or Finland;456 emissions from other popular cryptocurrencies like ethereum only compound the problem.

Furthermore, in recent years, more and more enthusiasts are being convinced that they too might strike it rich by buying in early to the next bitcoin or the next ethereum. But unfortunately, the playing field more often resembles a landscape with scammers and marks. Many are convinced that purchasing these currencies is an “investment”, rather than risky speculation that would be more accurately described as gambling if not outright investment fraud. People are regularly scammed for enormous sums of money, and the anonymous, nominally decentralized, and largely unregulated nature of the space offers them little recourse.7

The purported benefits of cryptocurrencies have also been largely unrealized. Rather than empowering the unbanked and distributing wealth to those in need, as once described, money has been hoarded in incredible amounts by a few wealthy individuals—0.01% of bitcoin wallets collectively own 27% of bitcoin in circulation, equivalent to around $232 billion.89 Furthermore, the underlying technology is enormously slow and difficult to scale when compared to databases used in most modern computing, so many technologies built around blockchains have spawned new, centralized solutions to the problems the blockchains themselves have introduced. As a result, the decentralization of the web that was supposed to result from the adoption of blockchain technologies has only resulted in the centralization of power in a handful of companies and venture capital firms.

The Wikimedia Foundation’s acceptance of cryptocurrency donations has had minimal returns, and no longer accepting them is unlikely to have a major impact on the Foundation’s ability to fundraise. In 2021, the Wikimedia Foundation only received about $130,000 in donations via cryptocurrency, making it one of their smallest revenue channels at only 0.08% of total donations.10 The benefits to donors are also minimal: the anonymity that might normally be offered to those who use cryptocurrencies is largely nullified by the WMF’s cryptocurrency payment processor, BitPay, which requires prospective donors to disclose their identities.11

The most impactful result of the WMF’s acceptance of cryptocurrencies has been to normalize their use. As the technology space around blockchains has evolved over the years, so too should we. Cryptocurrencies have been joined by a bubble of predatory, inherently harmful technologies that take advantage of individuals and contribute to the destruction of our environment. It is no longer ethical for the Wikimedia Foundation to tacitly endorse a technology that incentivizes the predatory behavior that has become rampant in the cryptocurrency space in the past few years. I have asked that they stop doing so in an RfC on meta.

References

  1.  Seitz-Gruwell, Lisa (July 30, 2014). “Wikimedia Foundation Now Accepts Bitcoin”Diff. Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  2.  Mellor, Sophie (December 9, 2021). “Bitcoin miners have returned to the record activity they had before China’s crypto crackdown”Fortune. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  3. Wilson, Tom (January 8, 2022). “Bitcoin network power slumps as Kazakhstan crackdown hits crypto miners”Reuters. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  4. Rowlatt, Justin (February 27, 2021). “How Bitcoin’s vast energy use could burst its bubble”BBC News. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  5.  Huang, Jon; O’Neill, Claire; Tabuchi, Hiroko (September 3, 2021). “Bitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible?”The New York TimesISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  6. “Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI)”Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance. January 21, 2022. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  7.  Sigalos, MacKenzie (January 6, 2022). “Crypto scammers took a record $14 billion in 2021”CNBC. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  8.  Vigna, Paul (December 20, 2021). “Bitcoin’s ‘One Percent’ Controls Lion’s Share of the Cryptocurrency’s Wealth”The Wall Street JournalISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  9.  Makarov, Igor; Schoar, Antoinette (October 13, 2021). “Blockchain Analysis of the Bitcoin Market”National Bureau of Economic Research↩︎

  10. “Talk:Fundraising/2020-21 Report”Meta-Wiki. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

  11.  “Privacy Notice”BitPay. December 13, 2021. Retrieved January 22, 2022. ↩︎

Disclosures for my work and writing pertaining to cryptocurrencies and web3 can be found here.

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