Censorship: Can Blockchain Help? — CityAM

Freedom of speech is a passionate issue for many people. And the threats of censorship are more evident today than ever before. What solutions are available from the blockchain community? And what does it potentially mean to have a censorship-resistant platform?

Numerous blockchain projects exist offering to address the issues of censorship. These include messaging platforms like Dust, Session and Riot. But, when you start diving into how these systems work, you can often struggle to find “the blockchain bit”.

Messaging apps need real-time responsiveness. And most people don’t want their chats and files available stored on blockchain even if they are encrypted.

Dust rewards “good members” with its coins, and makes it more expensive for those who abuse the platform. How does the platform decide what is abusive and what is not? It may not be a centralised system, but it doesn’t sound like it is censorship-resistant. Someone or someones are making those decisions.

Then come blockchain-based social media platforms. The majority of these systems boast of being “blockchain-based”. Again, it isn’t easy to find detail on how blockchain technology is used in their architecture.

Social media platforms typically include a messaging function which is similar to the dedicated messaging systems referenced above. They also need the ability to post and share more substantial content like photos, videos and more. There are some excellent decentralised file systems in the market today. Very few of them could handle the transaction volume or the file size needs of a social media network. And very few of them are capable of fending off censorship.

It isn’t easy to find detail on how blockchain technology is used.

Once again, it is unclear how blockchain technology helps to fight censorship.

A global system called the domain name service (DNS) is key to the functioning of the Internet. The DNS system converts readable names ( cryptoam.io ) into a series of numbers that point to where the website lives. DNS is a centralised system, and courts or nation-states can require the network to stop answering queries for a particular name if they get in trouble. It’s a blunt force tool for censorship, but it works.

There are at least two blockchain projects where the information for the name to number mapping resides in a blockchain. The amount of data is not too onerous, and the network can be designed to handle the hundreds of millions of queries an hour (if broadly adopted). But there is still a catch.

One system, the Ethereum Name Service (ENS) maps easily readable names to their long and complicated public keys. The information is stored on the Ethereum blockchain and thus is decentralised, distributed and immutable.

ENS makes it clear on the homepage of their site that their architecture currently comes back to a single point where a small group of people can collectively agree to go in and make changes that would affect the entire system — such as invalidating an address. Equally, the ENS is not for free. There is a centralised function for collecting payments, and if you don’t make your payment, the mapping becomes invalid. Both of these systems could apply the same censorship as the current DNS system.

Once again, it’s not clear how blockchain is going to help fight censorship.

Blockchain isn’t used for running the communications side of things. Even when blockchain is part of the tech stack, there are still backdoors to override the system. So, how is blockchain used? The short answer: Cryptocurrency payments. And not always payments between members.

Dozens of advertisers are withdrawing millions of dollars in advertising spend from Facebook. Why? Because advertisers are unhappy with the perceived lack in addressing hate speech on the platform. And to a lesser degree, failing to deal with systemic attempts to manipulate the public with misinformation in the form of conspiracy theories, or intentional misrepresentation of data.

Rather than supporting free speech, these advertisers are forcing Facebook to quantify — and in some cases outright censor — content on their platform.

There are some topics where society still draws a line. Free speech is not allowed if it is hate speech. Free speech is restricted when promoting false ideas or information. And in those cases, society still wants (and needs?) a way to censor. This point is often lost when the focus is on what blockchain technology “could do” versus what we “should do”.

Numerous studies have shown that artificial intelligence (AI), when left to its own devices, can become increasingly aggressive and (virtually) violent. This behaviour may be attributable to the algorithm, or it could be the bias built into the dataset that was used to train the AI.

We have also seen social media platforms where there is little to no moderation. Many of these platforms allow discourse which descends into negativity, abusiveness, conspiracy theories and worse.

If there are genuinely decentralised systems designed to be censorship-resistant, we must be fully aware and prepared. The possibility exists of those systems becoming filled with not just uncomfortable truths that some nation-state doesn’t want to discuss, but equally filled with all manner of divisiveness and negativity.

Today, blockchain is not the critical element to censorship-resistant messaging, social media or internet systems. In most cases, the key technologies are encryption and peer-to-peer networking. When the right use case comes along to make a system genuinely censorship-resistant, we should take great care in understanding the intended — and unintended — outcomes.

Get in touch with us info@blockchainrookies.com / Twitter @igetblockchain

Troy Norcross, Co-Founder Blockchain Rookies

Originally published at https://www.cityam.com on June 30, 2020.

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