Freedom of speech and the blockchain as a solution
Freedom of speech is in danger. Internet crackdown, social media moderation, suppression of free press, journalists killing and harassment, as well as multiplication of government regulations, are all symptoms of freedom of expression being always more limited. Also cryptocurrencies which constitute free speech are having hard times due to heavy regulations. This all has heavy consequences on many aspects of our society, economy, climate, and everything around us. The question is if anyone cares or if people will be simply fooled into a “Chinese style Internet” where every bit of information is being controlled, censored and manipulated and where people are being said whatever the government wants them to hear and where history can be simply forgotten or changed. Is freedom of speech of much importance to an ordinary person? This question could be asked in another way: Is knowing the truth still of any importance to someone?
Tiananmen Square massacre
On June 5 we had witnessed the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. For those who don’t remember, it was a massacre of an undisclosed number of people who have been killed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The army turned with tanks and guns on the students, workers, and residents protesting for almost two months against government corruption, inflation, suppression of freedom of press and speech, restrictions on political participation and all kind of liberties being taken away from the people. It is estimated that nearly 10.000 protesters have been killed but the information has never been confirmed as the Chinese Communist Party has distorted the truth and censored everything that mentions those events leading people to forget it and many young not even knowing what really happened. It is thanks to a few international journalists who documented the happenings and disclosed the proof that this information is still alive in the world.
The footage of an unidentified Chinese man nicknamed Tank Man is still available on the Internet as the symbol of utter disgust and outrage at the massacre, the symbol of protest against the regime and the calling to reason. That man stood in front of a column of tanks leaving the Tiananmen Square after the killing.
Over 1 million people participated in the protests calling for democracy and challenging the Communist Party. The students, the people who never before dared to speak to the government have found their voice on that square and “the Voice of the Students Movement” resounding from megaphones was empowering them. That June the Chinese government crushed the dream about democracy and in a much similar way democracy is being killed today by the means of censorship.
Communist Party distorted the truth about the happenings of that night and proceeded to filter the media in order to eliminate the uncomfortable truth and created the narrative that was convenient to them. Since then, the CP have been extending the censorship to become real surveillance state.
Censorship and surveillance
Starting from the Great Firewall which is the combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced in order to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border Internet traffic, the Chinese are surrounded by the tech monitoring them at every step. From WeChat app messages to facial recognition street cameras and the social score system, the government seems to have no limits in breaking fundamental people’s right to privacy and freedom of speech.
But the surveillance doesn’t limit to China because the latest reports state that the president Xi Jinping has a plan to establish his “new world media order” which abolishes the watchdog role the media are meant to play. This is because without journalists and their criticism, investigation and questioning individual freedoms, civil and human rights are easier to break and the laws can be bent effortlessly.
Just four years back Jinping was calling for nations to safeguard their “sovereignty, security and development interests” as much online as in the real world. While these calls seemed right and justified in front of online disinformation and harassment, today we see that the only thing it brought is propaganda, censorship, and social control. But you are wrong if you think that this control is limited to China. The vision of a “new media world order” extends to the rest of the world by promoting his model of Internet infrastructure to the governments of other countries and international forums as well as spreading technology that enables surveillance.
In an Amnesty International ranking, the most popular messaging app WeChat has a score of 0 out of 100 with regards to privacy protection. It has no end-to-end encryption and all users messages pass through the company servers and are accessible to the Chinese authorities. That means that the data about payments, geolocation and passing through the microphone and the camera are all exposed to third parties. The surveillance through backdoors spreads also with Huawei phones, 5G and other kinds of tech like cameras for street surveillance. China is ranked 177 out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Countries like China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and many others control the Internet and filter its content.
In many democratic countries, people think that the Internet is what they can see by searching Google but it’s not. The content is filtered in many ways and this control gives those in power the possibility to disseminate propaganda and manage and shape public opinion. Reporters Without Borders report that “China is aiming to promote the concept of cyber sovereignty, according to which every government is free to manage the Internet as it sees fit within its own borders — a concept that opens the way to all kinds of abuses, especially in authoritarian countries.”
A cashless world like the one in Sweden where almost all transactions are being performed electronically through intermediaries like banks or other third party services is also dangerous as those intermediaries are points of failure. Each intermediary can potentially censor, surveil, and profit.
In countries with authoritarian governments like Venezuela, Iran or Saudi Arabia bitcoin is a countering and liberating force because it is not state-controlled. According to the Human Rights Foundation, more than 50% of the world’s population lives under an authoritarian regime.
New Internet regulatory frameworks
Many may think again that they live in a democratic country but the recent moves from Great Britain suggest that the tentacles of the Communist Party extend far beyond the Far East. In its white paper, Great Britain designates a plan “for a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies, moving far beyond self-regulation.”
In this new regulatory framework for online safety, the government wants to “make clear companies’ responsibilities to keep UK users, particularly children, safer online with the most robust action to counter illegal content and activity.” The white paper has encountered much criticism because of how broad the regulation is what “could lead to a new North Korean-style censorship regime, where regulators decide which websites Britons are allowed to visit,” writes the Guardian.
Any website, app, social media or game where people interact in any way with each other is covered by this legislation and could be potentially closed, blocked and its managers sued. The legislation is an attempt to tackle the spread of material related to terrorism, child abuse, self-harm and suicide on the Internet but critics from across the political spectrum have warned the legislation could also threaten freedom of speech.
“It will benefit the largest platforms with the resources and legal might to comply, and restrict the ability of British startups to compete fairly. There is a reason that Mark Zuckerberg has called for more regulation. It is in Facebook’s business interest” said Dom Hallas of Digital Economy.
“Internet sovereignty” is being promoted also by Russia and other authoritarian regimes who are using the International Telecommunication Union as a platform.
These countries want to divide the Internet so each government can exercise power over its own jurisdiction, a thing that will allow for freedom of speech suppression and easier social manipulation by the means of content filtering and propaganda.
In the face of growing backlash on Internet freedom, even Google started promoting free and open Internet initiative. It’s been noted that some proposals promoted at the International Telecommunication Union could permit governments to censor legitimate speech — or even allow them to cut off Internet access. Other proposals would require services to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders.
The problem with establishing jurisdictions means that the companies will need to comply with state laws and won’t have the privilege to operate in free virtual space the Internet is today. Another problem lies with the navigation that will be limited and the information won’t be as easily reached. The Internet in each country will be a resized form of China. This brings also a new series of potential yet unknown limitations both to the end users and to the companies operating on the Internet. With the scattered Internet, you can forget about net neutrality and a world with no borders. It is also probable that higher costs for cross-border surfing will be applied, both to the users and to the companies.
The freedom of speech doesn’t end up on the Internet, however, nowadays it is certainly one of the most used mediums for information access.
Reporters and free press
The role of the reporters voicing the power abuse and people’s rights being taken away is essential but by the indictment of Julian Assange under Espionage Act, the Trump administration has challenged the first amendment about freedom of speech in defense of government secrets. It is yet to be seen if the 102-year-old act will survive the Supreme Court scrutiny if used against a journalist. Creating a loophole in the first amendment of the American Constitution with the aim to charge Assange will potentially create a cascade of unseen effects as well as having severe consequences for the freedom of the press.
For the truth to thrive journalists need to be protected. Their harassment and killing sees always new victims. At this time there are 169 journalists in prison, 144 citizens journalists imprisoned and 17 media assistants. In 2019 there are already 16 journalists killed. In 2018 that number reached 66 and there were also 13 citizens journalists and 5 media assistants assassinated. World’s biggest prison for journalists is China. All this in the name of freedom of the press.
Freedom of speech has been even denied to chatbots Baby Q and Xiao Bing who started having pro-democratic conversations with Chinese users.
The spread of Chinese Communist Party propaganda touches also other countries by media acquisitions. According to a Bloomberg News report in April 2018, China has invested around 3 billion euros in acquiring shares in various media in Europe in the last decade, about 1% of its entire investment in the continent. Beijing is evidently looking at acquiring shares in media outlets regarded as strategic.
Freedom of speech on the Internet
Although freedom suppression by the state actors is worrying, social media and web platforms have been also under attack in recent years. Fake news, cyber bullies, sensitive content, spam and bots all make part of today’s digital experience. The platforms make what’s possible to moderate the content and limit spam but it is not always possible. Over-moderation results in censorship while under-moderation calls for regulations. It is often difficult to establish when the content is harmful or when it constitutes free speech. The recent Maza vs Crowder debate is a good example of the difficulties with establishing a fair system and ensure freedom of speech for everyone. It is important though having these discussions and silencing them with laws, platform demonetization or over-moderation doesn’t help anyone.
Jordan Peterson, a known Canadian psychologist, said in one of his speeches: “We cannot allow attacks on free speech to go unnoticed and unpunished. It’s not about West or East but it’s the most fundamental truth the human race has ever discovered. Free speech is not dead yet. When it will be dead it will be hell and when we look at the XXth century that is where we’re headed.”
He describes freedom of speech as something anyone can participate in by paying attention and speaking the truth. If someone says the truth regardless of the cost then this is the axiom that regulates himself and the relationship with others and when people have this fundamental right taken away they are basically deprived of the right to think critically.
The process of thinking involves an internal conversation we have with different “I”, different voices in our head. They all are being taken into consideration and when you finally arrive at some conclusion then this is what we think is the truth. When we speak that truth we are being confronted with other people’s opinions and their versions of the truth. Your view undergoes scrutiny and is being questioned so you can listen and learn. This is how you evolve. Having these conversations with ourselves and with our peers is necessary for people’s evolution.
“Being free to speak means that you should be allowed even to be stupid and ignorant because that is who you are” said Peterson. “The enemies of speech are those who turn the potential into habitable order.”
The sovereignty of the individual and its voice is what keeps tyrannical order in check so if someone wants to censor free speech he doesn’t believe in the sovereignty of the individual and is totalitarian as such. Whoever limits free speech denies people to continuously work on the betterment of ourselves as individuals and as a race.
In the moment when hate speech is used as the reason to call for more government regulations when some individuals call for stricter platforms moderation it is dangerous to take any steps on limiting what constitutes free speech and anyone’s right to express freely their views.
It is dangerous to give anyone the right to draw the line what hate speech is and what constitutes harm because then we give them also the right to compel speech. In a room of one hundred people discussing an important topic, there will be not one but many people offended by your views. It is almost impossible to please everyone but democracy doesn’t ask for unanimity.
The platforms face today a difficult task where they are demanded to moderate users’ freedom of speech. Rather than censoring free expression, finding better solutions should be their primary goal.
It is merely up to the individual to decide what his level of tolerance and moral standards are and no government should be in a position to decide what they are. The platforms are created by private companies and they have the right to decide what is allowed and what is not but, for better user experience, opting for finding optimal solutions for free speech expression would be a better way to go. The users have the choice to stay on the platform or to leave it.
The same problem appears different when we talk about platforms being visited by a large number of people. At some point, these platforms become public spaces whose added value is created by thousands or millions of people and there’s users’ implicit expectation of the property right to the platform by the sole fact of contributing to its growth. This expectation is even stronger when a user has a big circle of supporters or is engaged actively in its community life. Although the forum still belongs to a private company, limiting free speech on something that became of public value is an error.
Blockchain as solution to free speech
Block.one the company behind EOSIO blockchain software announced its new social media app, Voice. It will be an app where the uniquely identified users will earn tokens for engagement and will be able to use them to voice (upvote) posts they like. They will also earn daily UBI for showing up on the platform. This is a good model of appreciation for good content and one that will also limit spam and bots.
This article has been published on Decentium.org platform built on the EOS blockchain. The articles are published on the blockchain and cannot be removed. The platform doesn't rely on one central server as most platform use to but all interactions with Decentium happen through public servers distributed across the world run by the EOS block producers, exchanges and enthusiasts who keep the network running. To post the content you need an EOS account but you get EOS rewards each time someone endorses your article. This system also allows authors to pay for referencing other authors content giving exposure to both in the process.
Blockchain brings to the digital world new possibilities where freedom of speech can be preserved. Bitcoin, after all, is freedom of speech. Bitcoin transactions cannot be censored as such, there are no middlemen and no one but the user controls his own funds. But the regulations that the government puts on cryptocurrency are killing it. When someone decides to regulate it as money transmission or as securities then it is comparable to limiting freedom of speech. The government has the power to censor bitcoin indirectly by targeting all public IPs. They can do the same with any website and people should beware because that means they can decide what they want you to see or not to see. They will be able to decide what the truth is.
The phenomenon of censorship resistance is very visible in the blockchain space. The communities around each chain are poised to value free speech very highly but when it comes to the regulations, they are quite hopeless. The regulators have the power to censor indirectly. It happened already in 2010 when the US government pressured Visa and Mastercard to block payments to Wikileaks. It happened also in 2018 when Coinbase blocked the Wikileaks Shop account from making transactions on the cryptocurrency exchange. It is happening also today when the regulators propose applying securities laws to almost every cryptocurrency. Also the exchanges don’t escape the ban hammer as they are subject to securities and/or derivatives regulatory requirements.
Although the governments recognise the benefits of the blockchain technology it is visible that they’re attempting to censor it because it undermines their influence.
EOSIO is a software that in many ways can be the solution to today’s problems of freedom of speech. With its high throughput, parallel processing, horizontal scaling, asynchronous communication, and interoperability it enables the creation of thousands of chains.
The problem is that where there are rewards for network participation very soon there are those who exploit the network for their own gains. This led Bitcoin and Ethereum to miners centralization and pools creation. This also led EOS to the concentration of votes in top nodes. This leads to the conclusion that the network cannot be run in exchange for rewards because it will always result in power concentration.
Conversely, BitTorent which is a p2p file sharing network gives its participants no reward. People come and go once they get what they were looking for and the performance grows with each user joining the network. Peers not only download content from the server but also serve it to other peers. The serving capacity of the system grows with the number of nodes, making the system potentially self-scaling. The studies conducted by Microsoft showed that at least a fraction of nodes performs altruistic uploading even after finishing their downloads.
Only a blockchain with no block rewards run by a network of altruistic nodes will maintain its decentralisation.
Due to the energetic expense of proof of work mechanism of consensus in Bitcoin and Ethereum, it is impossible to think about miners processing transactions for free, but EOS which relies on DPOS is more energy efficient and allows anyone with a good computer to run a node.
Each person running its own EOSIO node is able to process transactions and participate in the network. This means that anyone is able to exercise free speech in an uncensored manner. The ability to use their own EOS account name as a domain name will be revolutionary. Having an EOS account name associated with its own storage on IPFSs means that the user has full control over his own data. This also means that the responsibility for the content he stores, shares and the transactions he makes is on the user side. It would be also up to the user to decide what kind of information he wants to make visible and to whom.
With such a system decentralized applications would be limited to the role of a central point for a specific user type or for like-minded people. They wouldn’t store any data.
Freeing up the Internet content from filters and building tools that enable users to filter it on their end by unselecting the kind of content they don’t want to see means that it’s up to the user who decides its own moral standards while it’s up to the force orders to chase the criminals. With a similar system, there’s no need to call for more regulations because it’s the user who is liable for anything that is unlawful.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of each person. It is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This means that the protection of freedom of speech as a right includes not only the content, but also the means of expression.
Liberty of speech and of the press does not demand absolute liberty but “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” writes George Orwell, the author of “Animal Farm”. Giving up on this fundamental right means that we are going towards an Orwellian type of society.
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