Censorship is often a heavily debated topic, with its foundation stemming from opinions on politics, religion, culture, and even a person’s social upbringing. Censorship as it pertains to the internet, however, is unique because of the complexity surrounding the laws, ethics, and technology that drive the web itself. Since the mass adoption of the internet in the 1990s, there have been varying opinions on how and if the internet should be censored, yet, the majority feels that "freedom of expression should be guaranteed on the Internet".
Through blockchains like Ethereum, a new and decentralized web is being built with the promise of limiting censorship and centralized authority and will transform the internet as the world currently knows it. Now, more than ever, developers are in a position to create a web that mirrors early internet pioneers’ ideologies of a decentralized web.
Although the internet has spread its reach across most parts of the globe, it has done so with varying degrees of restriction. On one end of the spectrum, countries like Norway and Sweden have the least internet censorship, while China and Pakistan exert heavy surveillance and access control. North Korea has limited access and less than one percent of its population is able to go online. Suffice to say, censorship of the internet runs the gamut with the United States possessing neither the least restrictions nor the fastest internet speeds.
Censorship-heavy countries like China restrict political news, pornography, and entire websites, such as YouTube and Facebook. Attempts made by the social media giant to enter China have been difficult, to say the least, after the country banned Facebook in 2009.
Even in countries where social media sites flourish, censorship is still wielded by controllers who restrict politically charged posts or content that insults companies and their founders. Besides website owners, individual users on social media platforms can flag content as “inappropriate” thus reporting the violation to “authorities” who then decide on the appropriate action (leave a post or remove it).
While some internet censorship is ethical and necessary, such as DMCA and COPPA, many people disagree with the banning of individual accounts and posts that are opinion-based and well within the law. With this current trend, it seems that a “free internet” is one in which censorship thrives and is increasing globally.
ETHNews reached out to several of the leading platform founders who utilize blockchain technology. Although the persons queried represent profoundly different applications, each of the projects they are developing has redefined censorship as it exists today.
The AKASHA Project
AKASHA is an Ethereum-based social media alternative created by Ethereum co-founder, Mihai Alisie. The project is a peer-to-peer application that is part Facebook, part Medium, and part Reddit. It possesses a unique model of publishing unlike anything else on the mainstream web.
AKASHA Founder Mihai Alisie explains:
“When people ‘publish something on AKASHA,’ they are broadcasting a hash point into the IPFS and Ethereum network where other peers can access and spread the information. From this perspective, it is quite different from how normal ‘publishing platforms’ store your content on their servers in order to make it accessible to your friends/followers.
In our case, AKASHA can be seen more as a visual interface simplifying complex peer-to-peer interactions, blockchain transactions, and data exchanges. Thanks to how things are designed, we don’t actually publish anything ourselves.”
Because AKASHA does not own servers, any user’s request to remove a post would be futile since no intermediary exists. Content on the platform is neither hosted nor served by AKASHA, and responsibility of the users’ actions do not rest on the project creators’ shoulders either.
“The people using AKASHA are in full control over what they say - we’re merely providing a new kind of canvas on top of which people can freely express their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. I think AKASHA should not responsible for users’ actions just as BitTorrent is not responsible for users’ actions when it comes to what files they choose to share through the p2p protocol.”
The removal of censorship liability that Alisie refers to is a reoccurring theme of many decentralized applications (Dapps). Because information on public blockchain systems is distributed across multiple public nodes, there are no means of centralized control. With centralized models of Facebook and others, (e.g. Reddit, Twitter, Instagram) there is censorship control.
With AKASHA’s system of “up –voting” as an alternative to Facebook’s “likes,” (costing users small amounts of Ether for each click) a “reputation value system” is created for users to determine which posts contain the most valid sources of information. Rather than censoring “fake news,” the AKASHA Project has designed a method for users to grade the validity of content themselves.
Augur is an Ethereum-based decentralized prediction market that rewards users for correctly predicting future real-world events. Platform users are able to purchase and sell shares (REPutation tokens) based on the predictions of the outcome of an event.
Augur allows anyone in the world to pose any question and create a prediction market based on the proposed event, allowing any actor to freely buy and sell shares in the outcome of that market. Barring any censorship, prediction markets can even be made for natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other catastrophic events.
Betting on the future occurrence of any tragedy may seem unethical to most, but according to comments made on Augur’s website, prediction markets could be useful in thwarting terrorist attacks through the collection of information surrounding the event.
When ETHNews asked Augur co-founder Joey Krug, “Is there any predictions Augur doesn’t allow?” he said:
“There is no central group on the platform that decides what can be on the platform and what can’t, the ‘reporters’ in Augur actually decide that. They [reporters] have the option to report things as unethical which translates into; ‘this is an unethical market’. If the majority of reporters say that, then all the money is returned at even odds - that’s for ethicality issues. There’s one other thing they can do – if someone puts markets in the system that are “abcdefg” which is just spam – they can report that as indeterminate.
It’s actually safer legally to have the decentralized reporting system decide whether something is ethical or not. When you start saying ‘we created the UI [user interface] so we’re going to decide certain things to censor and not censor on the UI’, then it becomes more of a legal issue. If a mistake is made and something is not censored that some agency thought should have been, we could be liable. They only meaningful way to ban a market is for the reporters to say it’s unethical.”
LBRY (“library”) is a decentralized digital platform where users can play, share, and earn funds from media content, such as films, TV shows, podcasts, and other original content. Utilizing its own blockchain, tokens, and custom URL (lbry://) instead of Ethereum’s, the platform is reshaping the way media is accessed, distributed, and monetized. According to their homepage video:
“LBRY empowers creators to share their work on their terms with no censorship.”
While still complying with DMCA and COPPA guidelines, users can upload content and set a price-per-view with no ads or intermediaries to get in the way of user experience. Describing themselves as “a platform that no one will fully own,” LBRY provides both a safe haven for controversial entertainment, as well as an alternative to YouTube, Netflix, and other media streaming websites.
LBRY founder Jeremy Kauffman explains:
“A lot of people don’t realize the vulnerabilities and tradeoffs they're facing when they use the alternatives. I think that if what LBRY is doing was possible ten years ago, it would be what everyone is using. When people are given the choice between experiences that involve being controlled by a giant corporation, versus “not,” they’re going to take not – they rather have that direct connection – they rather have an unfettered, more free experience.
For the other side, the people who are making stuff, they rather have more control. The only reason that someone didn’t do this ten years ago is because it simply wasn’t possible.”
The vulnerabilities and tradeoffs Kauffman refers to directly correlate to censorship, as Sam Hyde, creator of sketch comedy show Million Dollar Extreme, experienced with cable network, Adult Swim, in 2016. Hyde is one of three creators of the controversial MDE show, “World Peace,” which contains crude humor and ‘politically incorrect’ views and satire. After the show was criticized for racism and sexism, Hyde was labeled to have “Alt-Right” ties. Adult Swim ended up canceling the show due to mounting pressure from network directors, writers, and executives.
”We actually started working with MDE prior to the whole Adult Swim cancellation, we have someone on our team who reaches out to YouTubers and other creators we think would be of interest to our users - that person contacted MDE and Sam [Hyde] was like, “go for it.”
While LBRY neither agrees or disagrees with views of MDE’s content, Kauffman and his team felt compelled to give shows like this a voice.
“At LBRY, we're proud to have MDE's content available. Not because we necessarily support what they say, but because we think that censorship and political correctness is disgusting.”
Similar to how AKASHA and Augur operate, LBRY does not administrate any censorship.
“We’ve designed the networks in such a way that we can’t remove a piece of content. We think that’s what actually makes it so trustworthy – we do not have the power that other alternatives have.”
Rather than succumbing to the pressure from censorship advocates, LBRY allows its users to police themselves.
“The nodes [users] who are making the network possible are welcomed and encouraged to subscribe to whatever kinds of blacklists to filter out content that doesn’t meet their morals. Once there is a certain density in the network of content not provided, it also becomes very expensive [to host] or not available at all. Our hope is that this will prevent the abuses of the old model while still preventing the stuff that everyone prefers would not be distributed on the internet.
To be clear, we do have the obligation and will be preventing access to illegal content in clients that we release. If we receive a DMCA notice and that takedown notice is legitimate – the clients that we release will not allow access to that – however, that’s not the equivalent of removing it from the network, that just makes it inaccessible in our clients.”
With the insights provided by the founders of AKASHA, Augur, and LBRY, a pattern emerges with powerful implications: future internet use will be about self-policing as opposed to centralized authorities holding control.
Ethereum co-founder, Vitalik Buterin, summarizes his notions in an Ethereum Foundation blog post, “The Problem of Censorship”:
Censorship-resistance in decentralized crypto economic systems is not just a matter of making sure WikiLeaks donations or Silk Road 5.0 cannot be shut down; it is, in fact, a necessary property in order to secure the effective operation of a number of different financial protocols.”
One can conceivably imagine a scenario where a large group of stakeholders collude to first undermine specific highly undesirable types of transactions (eg. child porn, to use a popular boogeyman of censors and civil liberties activists complaining about censors alike), and then expand the apparatus over time until eventually it gets into the hands of some enterprising young hotshots that promptly decide they can make a few billion dollars through the cryptoeconomic equivalent of LIBOR manipulation. In the later stages, the censorship may even be done in such a careful and selective way that it can be plausibly denied or even undetected.
Knowing the results of Byzantine fault tolerance theory, there is no way that we can prevent a collusion with more than 33% participation in the consensus process from doing any of these actions absolutely. However, what we can try to do is one of two things:
- Make censorship costly.
- Make it impossible to censor specific things without censoring absolutely everything, or at least without shutting down a very large portion of the features of the protocol entirely.
While Buterin’s comments on censorship pertain to smart contract use in financial markets, he outlines a plausible strategy to keep the internet relatively censorship-free while protecting consumers from manipulators through the use of smart contracts.
Decentralized blockchain platforms, whether Ethereum-based or not, are already reshaping notions of governance that extend into censorship. With autonomy at the core of blockchain technology, consumers will gain more access to uncensored media that contain fewer intermediaries and centralized control.