As Canadian protests against vaccine mandates rose to become a cause célèbre, millions of dollars in donations flew to a Christian crowdfunding site. But that site got hacked and also had to freeze millions of dollars meant for the self-styled “freedom convoy,” after the government enacted the Emergencies Act to cut off protesters from the financial system.
In that moment, Bitcoin entered the arena hoping to be the lead rescuer of the protesters from financial troubles, with the organizers of Bitcoin fundraiser HonkHonkHodl raising more than $1 million in the cryptocurrency. It was a big moment for Bitcoin, and the ideals that its proponents see in the cryptocurrency, like censorship-resistant money. "I still can't believe that this is the protest that would prove every Bitcoin crank a prophet,” David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp’s co-founder and a longtime anti-Bitcoiner, wrote in a blog titled “I was wrong, we need crypto,” at the time. “And for me to have to slice a piece of humble pie, and admit that I was wrong on crypto's fundamental necessity in Western democracies."
“Getting your money turned off is insanely harmful. One trucker I met ran a business and didn’t know when he was going to be able to pay his 10 drivers next,” a HonkHonkHodl lead organizer who goes by the pseudonym “NobodyCaribou” told Motherboard. “Incredibly messed up.”
But a strangely familiar fate has befallen Bitcoin donations: Many truckers now can’t cash out their donated bitcoin due to financial sanctions, with some of the bitcoins being seized from NobodyCaribou by the authorities. The lead protesters and fundraiser organizers are now facing a class-action lawsuit that wants to give all the donated bitcoins to Ottawa citizens who were in the vicinity of the protests.
J.W. Weatherman, a pseudonymous lead Bitcoin donor whom NobodyCaribou reached out to for help, brainstormed an action plan via a 25-page public Google doc, and eventually a coder volunteered to help divide 14.6 Bitcoins into 100 separate Bitcoin wallets to be distributed to the truckers.
But for the truckers to access the funds, NobodyCaribou had to approach them individually and hand out a meticulously-detailed explanation on how to claim the Bitcoin as well as the codes necessary, all carefully placed in envelopes.
“I orange-pilled many truckers by giving them 8,000 reasons to look into it,” NobodyCaribou told Motherboard. “10 percent of truckers refused the donation fearing scam or because [of] complexity,” he said.
One trucker, who goes by “UOttowaScotty” on YouTube, was on a live-stream from his cab on Feb. 16 when NobodyCaribou approached him and handed out an envelope that contained “$8,000 worth of Bitcoin,” along with instructions on how to claim it. “That’s insane, man,” the trucker said, “definitely one of the craziest things that’s happened over the last two weeks.”
According to a web page tracking fund movements in the distributed wallets, half of the wallets of the truckers have been accessed so far.
But all that radically transparent approach–intended for the peace of mind of donors like Weatherman, who had threatened HonkHonkHodl with a lawsuit if they failed to distribute Bitcoin to truckers before being enlisted to help—is also what made the plans go awry. Bitcoin’s a system of public ledger, so all transactions on the network are visible to everyone. This includes, of course, the authorities that want to track them down.
The Ontario Provincial Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police ordered banks and crypto exchanges to block any transactions from crypto wallets tied to the truckers. In reply to a question whether his crypto exchange would also ban addresses, Kraken CEO Jesse Powell, who donated $43,000 himself, said, “100% yes it has/will happen and 100% yes, we will be forced to comply. If you're worried about it, don't keep your funds with any centralized/regulated custodian. We cannot protect you. Get your coins/cash out and only trade p2p.”
“In following the Bitcoin on the public ledger, it appears that some end users were able to cash out some Bitcoin before it could be frozen,” law firm Lenczner Slaght partner Monique Jilesen told Motherboard. Lenczner Slaght acts for Champ & Associates, the law firm representing Ottawa residents in the lawsuit against the convoy organizers, including NobodyCaribou.
NobodyCaribou distributed the wallets on Feb. 16, one day before the freezing order—known in Canada as a Mareva injunction—was made. The order targeted individuals related to the protests “as any banks, financial institutions, money service businesses, fundraising platforms or websites, cryptocurrency exchanges or platforms, or custodians of any cryptocurrency wallets.”
The order specified cryptocurrency addresses controlled by NobodyCaribou and other organizers, and included any tokens belonging to NobodyCaribou “which have been transferred to other digital wallets, as identified through the public Ledger,” followed by a list of 123 addresses.
Although 14.6 bitcoin, which was worth around $630,000 then, were distributed to the truckers by then, the police came to NobodyCaribou’s home on Feb. 28 and took 0.28 bitcoin (worth about $15,000), stored in a wallet NobodyCaribou co-controlled with Tamara Lich and Chris Barber, members of a trucker-affiliated nonprofit who were previously arrested. According to court documents, NobodyCaribou claimed he was about to transfer the funds to an escrow agent when police compelled him to surrender his wallet under a search warrant.
The seizure of a censorship-resistant digital asset might sound odd at first, but all it’s referring to is a string of 12 words known as a seed phrase. If not held on a centralized crypto exchange like Coinbase, Bitcoin is self-custodial by design, which means one can only access their bitcoin if they type those 12 words in an exact order. According to NobodyCaribou, police compelled him to reveal his seed phrase.
The control of the seized bitcoin has now been passed on to a court-appointed escrow agent, Jilesen told Motherboard. The escrow agent will hold custody of bitcoin until the lawsuit has a verdict on the cryptocurrency’s fate.
“I wanted to give the bitcoin to truckers. A court order was issued for the bitcoin that had not yet been distributed, so regardless of what I ‘want,’ I’m not going to break the law and get arrested,” NobodyCaribou told Motherboard. “The basis for the claim on those funds is to be determined by courts. Until then, they are safely held in escrow.”
In the fallout of a Bitcoin experiment that could have gone better but was nevertheless a proof-of-concept for the Bitcoin community, there are a few key lessons. “Centralized coordination is fine, centralized custody is the problem,” NobodyCaribou told Motherboard.
“Note to self: never be a trusted third party again,” he tweeted on March 10.
Now the seized bitcoins, and the rest of bitcoins that could yet be seized from the truckers, may end up in the public coffers. “I can’t speak for the province, but they have a variety of options including compensating the people of Ottawa who were subject to the conduct of the defendants,” Jilesen told Motherboard.
Spokespeople for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General declined to comment “as this relates to a matter that is before the courts.”
Bitcoin wasn’t meant to end up in a legal quagmire like this—the cryptocurrency was designed and touted as an apolitical liberating force during times of heavy-handed government interventions, either for good or bad purposes. And yet, the realities of the cryptocurrency market, ranging from regulated entities to liquidity limitations, mean there’s a long way before Bitcoin can fulfill its potential as a censorship-resistant monetary technology.