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Three Ways Blockchain Can Fight Global Censorship

The right of free speech is under attack. In the United States, attacks on the free media, judicial tempering, reduced opportunities to investigate and freely report, and increased surveillance are all creating an environment where the right to speak freely is challenged. While most people would agree that few people are as reprehensible as Alex Jones, the collective censoring of his speech from Facebook, YouTube, and – eventually – Twitter raised a fine point: no one has to agree with what you say, but it is perfectly American to have the right to say it.

Or, it was.

As governments increasingly move from respecting the individual to acceptable groupthink, the need for avenues for those that seek privacy and the right to say what they wish becomes stronger. As with any need, an opportunity will arise for a solution to come to light, and that solution may be distributed ledger technology, or blockchain.

The question is if blockchain is enough to undo decades of speech restraint by means of active government censorship, aggressive use of “political correctness,” media consolidation, and government lobbying. To this, this is a question of if the tool is the solution or if the willingness to use the tool is the answer.

 

Wikipedia Censorship

It is weird to think that something as seemingly harmless as Wikipedia is actively censored. For most, the publicly-editable encyclopedia has been controversial for misleading articles, but not necessarily a threat.

To date, twelve countries have acted against Wikipedia. While some of the nations fit the “usual suspects” of censorship sponsors – such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia – others are shocking. Take, for example, the United Kingdom.

In 2008, the Internet Watch Foundation, a non-government watchdog group, blacklisted the 1976 Scorpions’ studio album Virgin Killer, which featured the photo of a nude seemingly pre-adolescent girl on its cover. A glass shatter effect covered the model’s genitalia. While English law bans child pornography and while the image was deemed “potentially illegal content,” the cover was not specifically banned. It was considered controversial in its time and was replaced with a cover featuring the band’s photos for some copies. Wikipedia featured the original cover on the album’s page.

The Internet Watch Foundation maintained a blacklist that was commonly used by web filtering systems. This led to the UK Wikipedia page to be banned on some computers and all versions of Wikipedia to be banned on others.

The ban led to the album’s page to be the most-viewed U.K. Wikipedia page in history, negating any good the IWF intended. In December 2008, the IWF rescinded its ban, while asserting that they were right about the image being child porn and that the image would remain banned if it was hosted on a British server (Wikipedia versions are all hosted on American servers).

In 2011, Italy passes the DDL Intercettazione, which in part states that if anyone believe themselves to be offended by the content of a website, that person can publish an unedited and uncommented reply on the same website, to be posted within 48 hours with a fine of 12,000 euros for non-compliance.

This is an obvious infringement on free speech. For one, Wikipedia is not an Italian website; there is really no way that it could be compelled to comply, especially without the intervention of a judge. Second, this give anyone the ability to comment on a record they disagree with, without having to prove their claims. This allows for propaganda and falsehoods to be inserted onto Wikipedia with the same weight as the article itself. Finally, this forced letter-posting violates the spirit of Wikipedia, which allows individuals to create and edit posts with the understanding that others will challenge and remove any falsehoods.

For three days, the Italian Wikipedia shut down, redirecting all requests to the text of the law. On the fourth day, service resumed, but with a notice on all pages noting the legislation. This notice remains to this day.

In 2013, an article about the Pierre-sur-Haute military radio station came under the attention of French interior intelligence agency DCRI. DCRI requested the deletion of the article from French Wikipedia, without giving reason for the deletion. On April 6, 2013, Wikimedia France issued a statement:

“The DCRI summoned a Wikipedia volunteer in their offices on April 4th [2013]. This volunteer, which was one of those having access to the tools that allow the deletion of pages, was forced to delete the article while in the DCRI offices, on the understanding that he would have been held in custody and prosecuted if he did not comply. Under pressure, he had no other choice than to delete the article, despite explaining to the DCRI this is not how Wikipedia works. He warned the other sysops that trying to undelete the article would engage their responsibility before the law. This volunteer had no link with that article, having never edited it and not even knowing of its existence before entering the DCRI offices. He was chosen and summoned because he was easily identifiable, given his regular promotional actions of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects in France.”

True to form, the article was restored and became the most read article on the French Wikipedia. Following widespread coverage of the situation and the article on television, Internet, and print, the Interior Department dropped the issue with no further comment. Reporters Without Borders pointed out, however, that the information in the article did not come from classified information, as the government suspected, but from a publicly-released documentary.

While it is easy to point to the totalitarian states as the model for censorship, censorship is possible in even the most liberal of environments. Wikipedia attempts to make censorship unfeasible due to its diverse editing platform. However, there are still people in charge of Wikipedia and – as seen in France – they can be threatened and bullied, just like the rest of us.

Removing the human element can help eliminate a channel for possible censorship. This is where blockchain technology comes in. Everipedia is a blockchain-enabled Wikipedia-alternative, which uses creation tokens to give users the right to vote on key decisions.

“The new product we have released makes the entire editing process completely transparent and open to anyone with an EOS account on the blockchain, meaning that it is a permissionless app that anyone can contribute to without us being gatekeepers,” the Everipedia team told Inverse. “The voting and consensus method is completely transparent as well since it all takes place on the EOS blockchain which is a public ledger. Essentially, this MVP [minimum viable product] displays the promise and vision we have of creating a provably fair, self-sustaining, uncensorable knowledge base using blockchain technology.”

Everipedia hosts its article using the InterPlanetary File System. What this means is that anyone can copy the Everipedia blockchain and article library and host it locally, making censorship difficult, if not outright impossible. IPFS downloads files from a single computer, instead of gathering pieces from multiple computers. This means that the hypermedia transfer is peer-to-peer, which is more protectable than cloud-based downloads.

It is unknown if Everipedia will ever replace Wikipedia, but it is off to a good start. The English version of Everipedia has more articles than the English version of Wikipedia, due to the easier contribution process. Additionally, to date, Everipedia is available in China, Russia, and Iran – although web tunneling software may be needed to access it.

 

Media Centralization

Unless you have been asleep for the last decade or so, you will know that the name of the game for America media is consolidation. In order to boost profitability and to compete with producer-broadcasting vertical channels like Disney, much of the world’s media consolidated into super-conglomerates.

In the United States, just five companies control 90 percent of the national media. Comcast owns NBC, NBCUniversal, Telemundo, Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment, Focus Features, DreamWorks Animation, 26 television stations in the United States and cable networks USA Network, Bravo, CNBC, MSNBC, Syfy, NBCSN, Golf Channel, E!, and NBC Sports Regional Networks. Disney owns ABC, ESPN, the Disney Channel, Disney XD, Freeform, History, A&E and Lifetime, approximately 30 radio stations, music, video game, and book publishing companies, production companies Touchstone, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios, mobile app developer Disney Mobile, Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, and theme parks in several countries.

AT&T owns WarnerMedia, which consists of CNN, part of the CW, HBO, Cinemax, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, HLN, NBA TV, TBS, TNT, TruTV, Turner Classic Movies, Warner Bros. Pictures, Castle Rock, DC Comics, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and New Line Cinema. AT&T also owns DirecTV, U-Verse, AT&T Mobility, Cricket Wireless, AT&T SportsNet, and Audience.

21st Century Fox owns the Fox Broadcasting Company, cable networks Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild, FX, FXX, FX Movie Channel, MyNetworkTV and the regional Fox Sports Networks; film production companies 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Blue Sky Studios. The entertainment part of the portfolio, however, is in t6he process of being sold to Disney.

National Amusements owns half of CBS and Viacom. CBS owns CBS Television Network and the CW (a joint venture with Time Warner), cable networks CBS Sports Network, Showtime, Pop; 30 television stations; Entercom, owner of hundreds of radio stations; CBS Television Studios; book publisher Simon & Schuster. Viacom owns MTV, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, TV Land, VH1, BET, CMT, Comedy Central, Logo TV, Paramount Network, Paramount Pictures, and Paramount Home Media Distribution.

This list does not include local station consolidation, such as Sinclair Broadcasting’s major sweep of network affiliates. Sinclair is known for forcing their affiliates broadcast conservative-propagandizing content in reflection of the company owner’s political beliefs. True independent media in this country is rare. It is at a point that the consolidation has created a general opinion that the media should not be trusted.

“One of the few things the American people agree on is that the mainstream media is woefully inadequate,” billmoyers.com reports. “According to a 2016 Gallup poll, only about 20 percent of Americans have confidence in the television news and in newspapers. Donald Trump effectively harnessed this distrust during his campaign, and still attacks the media before his fans when he wants to prompt applause.”

“Americans recognize that the media does not represent their views, and media consolidation is largely to blame. In the early 1980s, journalist Ben Bagdikian calculated that the majority of US media was held by just 50 corporations — and the number has dropped to only a handful since then.”

“This means that national and even local news coverage priorities are dictated from afar —

and by business leaders, not by journalists on the ground. It means that as print and broadcast journalism struggles to remain profitable in the face of free, online alternatives, hard financial decisions that affect reporters and the stories they tell will be made in corporate boardrooms. And it assures that some issues — issues in which corporate America is uninterested — go uncovered, while some voices — particularly female, minority and immigrant voices — rarely make it into print or onto the airwaves.”

The effects of this can be startling. Due to consolidation, many local newsrooms have shut down or merged, severely clamping the amount and quality of local reporting. There is also the impression that local reporting must fit molds set by their owners, creating a bias in reporting. This also extends to national coverage. For example, a report on weaponry may be slanted to be favorable to the corporate owners – such as GE – or to allies. During the 2016 Presidential Primaries, many networks, particularly NBC and its affiliates MSNBC and CNBC, gave Donald Trump preferential treatment. Trump, at the time, co-produced the Miss USA Pageant with NBC and was the executive producer of the NBC shows “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” This treatment may have been a significant reason Trump won the Republican nomination, despite his lack of experience and relative newness to the party – he was a Democrat for sixty-plus years and an Independent for four years before jumping on the Republican bandwagon.

The more damning thing about this, however, is an indirect effect of media consolidation. Due to the placement of media lobbyists on the FCC, the major conglomerates got Internet neutrality stricken down. What does this mean? Basically, it strikes the notion that the Internet is an utility and – accordingly – must be allocated fairly at a consistent rate and allow the ISPs to set different rates for different users. This is important when you consider that most of the major ISPs also deliver Internet or cable TV, and the rate of cable subscribers are dropping.

Suddenly, the major conglomerates have a weapon to push back against Netflix and Google – which owns YouTube. While the conglomerates have promised that they will not throttle the bandwidth of any “cable cutters,” Comcast has already offered improved Internet speeds to those willing to bundle their Internet with cable TV. In effect, Comcast is speed throttling by denying their fastest speeds to “cable cutters.” Other conglomerates, like AT&T, offer free mobile data usage to certain types of streaming content.

Blockchain offers a partial solution to all of this. By offering a way to shield user data when content sharing and viewing, blockchain apps like Mainframe addresses another major concern of media consolidation: privacy invasions. Increasingly, the major ISPs and the government have been successful bullying Facebook and Slack to turn over user data on command. By encrypting data as it is created, there is nothing to turn over.

Other services, such as encrypted streaming services and decentralized content sharing hubs, attempts to create an alternative infrastructure. However, until one finds a way to decentralize bandwidth, these attempts are just efforts to make do and not viable solutions to end the censorship and control.

 

Circumventing Firewalls

What blockchain can do, however, is blast holes through nationalistic firewalls.

From Slate’s Future Tense:

“So far this year, governments around the world, including those of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia, have blocked access to a number of websites and platforms, sparking outcry over restrictions on online freedom of speech and expression. In April, Russia began blocking Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app—a ban that inspired a protest joined by thousands of people in Moscow later that month. The Telegram block was made possible at least in part by Google and Amazon’s decision in May to implement changes that made it harder to access digital anti-censorship tools. Despite the growing landscape of threats to digital rights and online freedom of speech, however, there are some reasons for hope—and one of them may be blockchain.”

“Given the constant claims that blockchain is the solution to everything from poverty to corruption, it’s understandable if you’re skeptical. But this is an example of a situation in which it genuinely has potential.”

“In early April, eight students at China’s prestigious Peking University filed a freedom of information request for the school’s official records on Gao Yan, a student who reported two decades ago that she had been sexually assaulted by a professor and subsequently killed herself. The university refused to disclose further information, but on April 5, a friend of Gao’s shared her story online nonetheless. The exposition of Gao’s case and the university’s role in covering it up sparked outcry, and hundreds across the country called on the university and government to do more to prevent sexual assault and harassment.”

“In response, censors cracked down on online discussions of the issue. They also swiftly removed from WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app, an open letter penned by Yue Xin, one of the students behind the freedom of information request. Yue’s letter detailed the intimidation and coercion she had faced from the school and authorities following the submission of the request and highlighted the restrictive nature of speech in China both online and offline.”

“However, a supporter was able to circumvent speech restrictions on this topic by embedding Yue’s letter into the tamper-proof Ethereum blockchain. Blockchain is an open-source, public, distributed computing technology, which is the basis of the well-known cryptocurrency bitcoin. Ethereum is a public blockchain that hosts the cryptocurrency Ether. The anonymous activists sent themselves zero Ether on the platform and embedded the text of Yue’s open letter in the transaction’s metadata. Transactions on blockchain are irreversible, so the information cannot be altered. Furthermore, transactions generate distributed copies of themselves within the network, which ensured that Yue’s letter would be permanently documented in the public domain and accessible to any user who looked the transaction up. However, because communication is not currently a primary use case of blockchain, accessing this transaction data is more difficult than on communications-focused platforms such as social media. In response, students from universities across the country similarly embedded messages in their transaction descriptions, therefore enabling for unrestricted and free conversation on the issue to take place.”

Prior to May, knowledgeable computer users behind national firewalls could still communicate with the outside world due to a technique called domain fronting. Used by web tunneling software like Tor, GreatFire, Telegram, and Signal, domain fronting let traffic from outside a large website be recognized as traffic from the website. As nations like China is remorse to go up against the like of Google – as that may cut off future business opportunities – the disguised data is allowed out. However, in May, in an attempt to curb malicious activity, the two largest domain fronting sites – Amazon and Google – changed their network infrastructure to make traffic shuffling impossible.

While it is feasible to think that Tor would still work to camouflage an Internet user, other services would not. Blockchain offers a solution. As the message written to the chain is encrypted, it can pass unmolested pass firewall checks.

“But blockchain is not a perfect solution here—far from it. Since blockchain is not currently commonly used or understood as a communications or digital rights service, the student protest letter in China did not garner the same level of virality that it would likely have achieved on social media. In addition, after the letter was embedded in the Ethereum blockchain, WeChat prevented users from accessing the blockchain transaction page on etherscan.io and therefore hindered access to the letter and its responses, although it was accessible on other, mostly smaller platforms. In this case, activists were able to circumvent some of the WeChat censorship by flipping images of the letter upside down. Nevertheless, this is a major challenge to using blockchain to circumvent censors at a greater scale. In return, it is likely that activists will be able to find ways to side-step these obstacles. But other challenges will crop up. If blockchain is to be a sustainable solution in this space, activists and organizations like Civil and Zappl that are working in the blockchain, free expression, and anti-censorship spaces will have to be nimble—because the development of tools for both censorship and fighting censorship is an ongoing cat-and-mouse game.”

The weight of blockchain technology to affect a change in global free speech is dependent – much like a fairy – in the faith of those that believe in it. A blockchain that is not utilized, blocked from social media, or simply ignored is just code. It is people that makes technology work.

 

A World Censored

The shocking truth is this: two out of every three persons alive today live under some state of censorship. While it could be massive shutdowns in China, blocked websites in Iran, or significant government surveillance in the United States, the reality is that our sense of privacy is slowing growing passé.

“A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century,” Freedom House wrote in its 2018 Freedom in the World report. “Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Turkey and Hungary, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule. The military in Myanmar, which began a limited democratic opening in 2010, executed a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2017 and rebuffed international criticism of its actions. Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful democracies are mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, terrorist attacks, and an influx of refugees that has strained alliances and increased fears of the ‘other.’”

“The challenges within democratic states have fueled the rise of populist leaders who appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and give short shrift to fundamental civil and political liberties. Right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017. While they were kept out of government in all but Austria, their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the right and left. Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron handily won the French presidency, but in Germany and the Netherlands, mainstream parties struggled to create stable governing coalitions.”

“Perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished among many, contributing to a dangerous apathy.”

“The retreat of democracies is troubling enough. Yet at the same time, the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized the opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy. A confident Chinese president Xi Jinping recently proclaimed that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing countries to follow. It is a path that includes politicized courts, intolerance for dissent, and predetermined elections.”

It should be noted that Xi just declared himself president-for-life in China.

The most blockchain could be is a tool. There must be a will to use it for it to be a revolution, as some are promoting. There is no such thing as a man-made fix; man creates opportunities to solve his own problems, but it is humans that solve human problems.

The answer to the question poised in the introduction is that blockchain cannot fix censorship. However. It is a first step. “Democracies generally remain the world’s wealthiest societies, the most open to new ideas and opportunities, the least corrupt, and the most protective of individual liberties. When people around the globe are asked about their preferred political conditions, they embrace democracy’s ideals: honest elections, free speech, accountable government, and effective legal constraints on the police, military, and other institutions of authority.”

“In the 21st century, however, it is increasingly difficult to create and sustain these conditions in one country while ignoring them in another. The autocratic regimes in Russia and China clearly recognize that to maintain power at home, they must squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions beyond their borders. The citizens and leaders of democracies must now recognize that the reverse is also true: To maintain their own freedoms, they must defend the rights of their counterparts in all countries. The reality of globalization is that our fates are interlinked.”

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