I’m the founder of the messaging app & Zcash wallet Zbay and the former co-director of the privacy & freedom activism organization Fight for the Future. I’d like to announce my candidacy for the MGRC.
I’m running because I believe that the success of Zcash depends on the user-facing apps that build on it, and that having a wallet developer’s perspective on the MGRC will help it make the best possible use of scarce funds, to bring the privacy benefits of Zcash to as many people as possible.
For the past 20 years I’ve been a technically-aware activist working for an Internet that helps people dismantle unaccountable power. I’m from the northeast U.S., but I’ve lived in Italy and Brazil and speak Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. I’m a free software advocate and once worked at the Free Software Foundation, though most of my work has been on my own open source projects or activism organizations. I have always been a huge believer in the importance and power of free software, with an especially strong interest in peer-to-peer free software since 2003, and blockchain networks since 2011. My recent talk at HOPE, Zbay, Fighting FAANG, and the Quest for a Peer-To-Peer Messaging App That “Just Works” and my writing on why I’m building Zbay are two great artifacts for understanding my thinking on all of this.
Two fun facts about me: I’m a very good karaoke DJ (“KJ”) and am currently raising ducks.
Here is a partial list of projects I’ve co-founded:
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight_for_the_Future / https://fightforthefuture.org
My experience building on Zcash…
As the founder of Zbay, I’m one of a still pretty small number of people who’s seen Zcash from the perspective of a development team outside Zcash Foundation (ZF) and ECC. And my commitment to making Zbay a smooth experience for users has made me familiar with many of Zcash’s rough edges and the work required to smooth them over. There are still a lot of issues that bite developers, from performance, to stability, to places where a user’s expectations clash with what’s happening under the hood. So this perspective can help inform where funding is most needed, and keep conversations about what to fund grounded in the gnarly details that teams trying to bring Zcash to mass adoption are facing and working through.
My experience with nonprofits and grantmaking…
In addition to my perspective building on Zcash, I bring a lot of relevant experience in the nonprofit and policy space that I think will be helpful—both to getting MGRC on solid footing and to winning a global regulatory landscape that’s safe for Zcash and efforts like it. As co-founder and co-director of Fight for the Future, I built a nonprofit that was both self-sustaining and extremely effective at achieving its goals. All nonprofits face a hard problem: how do you hold yourself accountable to impact without customers and a balance sheet as the ultimate metric? Businesses that don’t deliver some value will usually fail, but ineffective nonprofits can linger on indefinitely. For grant-making nonprofits this problem is even more serious, since bad grant-making decisions can distract and distort entire fields. At Fight for the Future we raised the money we needed to, but we always put campaign outcomes first and established a remarkable track record, changing the course of tech policy in the US and globally with a small team. On the MGRC, I would focus on building a similar culture and process to hold our community’s grant-making accountable to impact.
My experience with regulatory battles…
The regulatory landscape for privacy-focused cryptocurrencies affects Zcash in significant ways; my experience will probably be helpful there too. From the Apple vs. FBI case to the EARN-IT Act, U.S. law enforcement agencies have made it clear that they want a backdoor requirement for encryption, which would be a complete disaster for security and privacy. ECC, ZF, and many key individual participants are U.S.-based, so this threat affects Zcash. In a more mundane way, regulatory uncertainty and FUD also seems to be inhibiting the availability of shielded-to-fiat exchange. It seems prudent for MGRC to invest some small portion of its funds (perhaps up to 10%) in advocacy work to address issues like these—provided there are projects and teams that could credibly make an impact. (Finding and vetting effective advocacy projects and teams is really hard, and I could be helpful for that too. I know the tech policy ecosystem very well, and recently ran a grantmaking process for policy work called A-Teams that solicited proposals for and screened thousands of candidates.) There’s a tendency in the tech world to pretend that government is irrelevant while the policy defeats keep piling up, changing the course of tech for the worse. The cryptocurrency space is no exception. If Zcash needs defensive or proactive public policy work, I’m uniquely positioned to find good teams for the MGRC to fund.
On the importance of user-facing apps…
Right now, Zcash faces a chicken-and-egg problem. Anyone trying building a user-facing app with Zcash will run into issues specific to their use-case that make it hard to build a compelling product. But meanwhile, until popular user-facing apps exist, how can Zcash “core” developers know which issues merit focusing on? Without real-world use-cases to narrow it, the Zcash problem space is almost impossibly large.
If the Zcash ecosystem is something like a pipeline, delivering privacy superpowers from cutting-edge research at one end to individual end users at the other, that pipeline is still in a very formative trickle. The tech works, and early adopters are using it. But we don’t yet have enough user-facing apps to give the research and engineering teams a clear enough idea of what to build for.
My biggest hope for the Major Grants program is that it will join ECC and ZF in working to get this pipeline flowing, turning this chicken-and-egg problem into a virtuous cycle. That is, a cycle where user-facing apps with real traction are uncovering bugs and bottlenecks, clarifying what problems the engineering and research teams should solve—and where the resulting solutions make it ever easier to build successful user-facing apps.
I think the MGRC should fund up and down this pipeline, from basic research and engineering, to developer tools, to user-facing apps, and perhaps even to marketing, business development, or advocacy work. I also think it’s important for MGRC to fund a mix of straightforward (low risk, known reward) and speculative (high risk, potentially game-changing) projects.
The MGRC isn’t alone; ECC and ZF have been, and should be, pursuing similar objectives. It’s great that ECC has been “eating their own dogfood” by building mobile wallets. It’s great that ZF has been building Zebra and funding Zecwallet. Overlapping scope is fine when there’s also coordination and collaboration, which there has been. My hope is that ECC, ZF, and MGRC are different enough institutionally that they’ll each bring a different perspective to what the focus and approach should be, and that together we’ll succeed at unclogging enough bottlenecks to unlock the world-changing potential of Zcash.
In June of this year Zbay was awarded a ZF grant and we may apply to the MGRC someday, but I would recuse myself from any decision to fund Zbay or any organization I have a formal relationship with (I’m on the board of Fight for the Future, for example.)
I think part of the reason why we don’t have more wallet developers running for MGRC is that many would reasonably hope to receive funding from the MGRC, and being on the MGRC makes applying for grants more fraught. Serving on the MGRC is also a time commitment and potentially a distraction. But to me it’s important enough to have some representation for wallet developers on the MGRC that it’s worth it to be involved, and my hope is that any distraction will be outweighed by what I’m able to learn from and contribute to the space!
I don’t own a significant amount of Zcash (less than 5% of portfolio.) That might change, so I’ll follow whatever policies are in place for disclosure and conflicts, and recuse myself from any discussion about what those conflict policies should be.
Thanks for reading this far and considering my candidacy! Please reach out here or privately with any questions. I’d be happy to meet on a video call or, if you like, over encrypted memos in Zbay