Today, more people around the world have the ability to exchange ideas and value with one another than ever before. Yet even at this historic height of connectivity and interconnectedness, we live in increasingly complex and alarming times when it comes to free speech, trust and censorship.
In the past week alone:
- The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is days from a vote where its chairman, Ajit Pai, intends to repeal net neutrality, despite efforts by a faction of Democrats and activists to appeal and delay the vote. (digital information and communication censorship)
- The price of bitcoin has exploded as asset-holders and speculators rush into a more decentralized, “censorship-resistant” financial asset (and system), leading to some colorful observations, like the fact that the Bulgarian government, which recently confiscated 200,000 bitcoin bustin a single cybercrime, now sits on cryptoassets worth 6% of its entire GDP. (financial censorship)
- In a little-watched and under-reported Washington, D.C. Superior Court trial dubbed #J20 (January 20th), two assistant US attorneys are trying the first six of 194 defendants, including journalists, nurses and other non-violent protestors (who face potentially decades in prison) from the January 20, 2017 Trump Inauguration Day protests. Charges include felony counts of “inciting or urging to riot, rioting, conspiracy to riot, and destruction of property,” despite government prosecutors willingly conceding these specific individuals weren’t involved in any damage, destruction or violence themselves. That’s correct: The Trump administration and Sessions DOJ is currently trying to criminalize — or, at the very least, intimidate — peaceful protest by setting the precedent that if you attend a protest, you’re personally liable for anything and everything that happens at and around it. (political, media and communication censorship)
- Breaking news from independent Russian media startup The Bell (and a related BuzzFeed story about bilateral election intervention talks earlier this year) confirms for the first time that Russian intelligence officials and cybersecurity contractors were arrested by the Kremlin in November 2016 to silence them from relaying information related to Russia’s cyber-involvement in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. These are the first public, non-classified signals from the Russian government that GRU hackers actively targeted the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Because why jail and censor your own people to keep them quiet about a cyberattack (you claim) you never committed? (political and information censorship)
- Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement to expose sexual misconduct, gender inequality and censorship in the workplace (extending all the way to Washington) has continued to gain momentum and empower more women to come forward, leading to the high-profile ousters of Senator Al Franken (D) and Congressman Trent Frank (R), with reportedly many more to come. (identity censorship)
Hopefully you see the common, connective thread amongst the dots.
At a time of ostensible freedom and open communication, freedom is currently defending itself in a multi-front war against fascists, manipulators, bigots and (somewhat ironically) radical, libertarian-capitalist conservatives in Washington.
I fully expect censorship will be an urgent, recurring and frequently unspoken theme in our ongoing global conversations about freedom, decentralization, technology, authoritarianism and social equality well into 2018 and beyond.
Censorship is a tool for controlling power. And power frequently looks to preserve and protect itself from change that might diminish it
I’m also anticipating rigorous development and innovation from activists, technologists and everyday progressives to resist censorship across four frontiers:
- Communication – freedom of speech, expression and the right to peacefully assemble
- Information – free, independent press and freedom for digital packet flow, processing and switching across the Internet. this would also extend to information infrastructure, including underlying protocols
- Assets – freedom from financial censorship, power consolidation and inequality
- Identity – blind, equal treatment and freedom independent of race, gender, age, sexual identity or religious beliefs (though it certainly gets problematic when two or more of them end up at odds)
Let’s look at some of the pressing issues, developments and open questions across each one.
We communicate within two fundamental spaces: digital and physical.
In digital, Google and Facebook largely preside over a duopoly for determining the news and communications the majority of internet users see, send and interact with (ex-China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and a small other group of nations where both platforms themselves are censored).
Over half of U.S. adults use Facebook as their primary news source, while Google captures an estimated 71% of global search volume. Similarly, only a small fraction of digital communications are relayed without passing through some step in the Facebook (core product, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, FreeBasics, instant articles) or Google (YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, Google AMP) ecosystem.
And, unless it’s directly P2P, both platforms regulate that communication flow and discovery through algorithmic filtering, fundamentally a form of censorship.
But to what extent does this filtering provide consumer utility by cutting through digital abundance and irrelevant or malicious content, compared to creating information bias or unfairly censoring certain perspectives?
How much transparency, visibility and say should (can?) we, their customers and constituents, have into how these algorithms work and how our data is harvested and monetized?
And what’s the editorial — let alone ethical — oversight and governance structure when Facebook and Google both operate as de facto media companies and monetization gatekeepers? After all, we’ve already seen cases of undue censorship and gross privacy violations from multiple tech giants.
While both platforms have assumed more accountability in recent months over their role as conduits and amplifiers for fake news, many of these questions remain un-answered or, at best, inadequately answered. Even the question of what is or isn’t fake news (vs. parody, or a valid but dissenting viewpoint) is a judgement call in censorship.
Increasingly, given their respective reach and power, as well as what’s at stake, it’s critical Facebook and Google get those judgement calls right. China, Russia, Turkey and Iran meanwhile, four of the largest government-censored digital populations, have simply replaced Facebook and Google with a domestic duopoly like Tencent and Baidu, Yandex and VKontakte, or sometimes nothing at all.
In response, censorship-resistant communication channels have seen their growth accelerate around the world, including Tor (and Pluggable Transports), VPNs, ProtonMail, Signal and Telegram.
And when we turn to physical, public spaces — the other forum for mass communication — a far more nefarious set of attempts at censorship are being carried out within the United States, in Russia, and elsewhere.
In the U.S., as Jacobin reports, nineteen different Republican-sponsored pieces of legislation have been introduced in 2017, across the country, to increase criminal penalties for protesters or hold other protesters or their organizers liable (“guilt-by-association”) for any property damage or violence that occurs.
A North Dakota bill is perhaps the most sickening. In response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, local Republican lawmakers proposed eliminating a driver’s liability if they “unintentionally” run over a protester with their car. Only a few months later, a Nazi sympathizer drove full speed into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville, VA, taking the life of Heather Heyer.
Whether the target is environmental activists, Black Lives Matter, anti-Trump #Resistance members, female sexual assault accusers or bitcoin holders, all of them represent movements to overturn existing systems of political, economic or social power, thereby marking them threats to be censored by the power they threaten.
After all, what are society’s darkest and most permanent forms of censorship? If not public rejection and disgrace, then certainly incarceration or physical harm.
And remember, incumbent power is undercut when even just the idea that resistance is effective spreads successfully.
If communication censorship attempts to stifle what‘s said, seen and heard where, then information censorship is closely linked to how communication and data travel and are made available, especially online. Both are tightly coupled, regardless of how one frames any distinction between the two – if one even needs to exist at all.
Net neutrality, alongside blockchain, both sit at the front lines of the fight over information censorship. And, if (when?) net neutrality is repealed, the two will have a complex and frayed relationship.
Net neutrality, for anyone in need of a quick refresher, requires that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon don’t give preferred treatment to particular websites and web services. All websites should be treated equally and given the same priority, speed and security.
Repealing net neutrality, which now seems imminent in the United States, gives ISPs the ability to modify network access priorities. And there’s precedent to expect they will. In 2011, Verizon banned Google Wallet temporarily because it competed with a Verizon payment service, while Comcast has throttled services like web torrents, as well as Netflix (until Netflix paid Comcast for faster service to its customers). In every case, usability was degraded.
In addition to more aggressive rent-seeking from well-funded traffic consumers like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix, repealing net neutrality also opens the door to more direct censorship of digital change agents. What if website loading times for Indivisible.org or Black Lives Matter suddenly skyrocket? Or what if an ISP decides it has a preferred cryptocurrency exchange, or decides to implement data caps to delay blockchain network transaction validation for full nodes?
After all, the mission of the blockchain community is ostensibly to develop new peer-to-peer, internet protocols —exactly what established internet providers and power-brokers have a history of blocking. And, as you can see below, roughly 1/3rd of the entire bitcoin network operates across only 15 or 16 unique ISPs.
This is not to say this will happen, but there is a very real risk this can happen. And while the crypto community is already anticipating it (and pointing out Bitcoin can run inside censorship-resistant networking technologies like Tor and I2P, or be hosted in a less oppressive place, then reached via an encrypted connection), risks remain.
If net neutrality is lost, forget being able to run peer-to-peer applications. Bitcoin, Tor, Ethereum and others will be out of reach for most.
— Emin Gün Sirer (@el33th4xor) November 24, 2017
Generally, I’m optimistic our brightest engineers will have the ingenuity to continue to overcome censorship and scaling headwinds. There are already a handful of promising projects underway to rebuild a functioning internet with a decentralized backbone, but the road ahead looks to be long and challenging.
I also bring up Bitcoin and cryptoassets, because — much like the censorship risks from centralized telecom operators and ISPs — many advocates of free internet and information also (quite justifiably) see the same risks from a centralized financial system (*ahem* 2008) and financial censorship.
It’s still worth asking the question however: unless we fundamentally start from the (again, not entirely unjustified) position that our current, centralized global financial system is irreparably broken and needs to be replaced top-to-bottom, what’s the real value and consumer utility of a censorship-resistant P2P transaction?
The adoption, excitement and value underlying Bitcoin (and, to lesser degrees, other cryptocurrencies like Monero and Spectrecoin which offer even greater levels of privacy) certainly validate its existence; but why does the average person really need this? When is it a better alternative than the existing banking system?
There are a few obvious cases where this is true:
- Economies in parts of the world where the financial system is fundamentally defunct or deficient, like Venezuela or Zimbabwe
- You’re a member of an oppressed group that needs to transact around that oppression
- Buying drugs
But, outside of other criminal use cases (such as laundering or digitally “off-shoring” money to dodge taxes and/or legal scrutiny), it’s hard to come up with a compelling reason #4, #5 and #6 for why the average person needs censorship-proof ways to regularly exchange and transact assets, goods and services.
How much of the current public excitement and uptake of cryptoassets is really about censorship resistance? Or — speculators, criminals and the economically-stricken aside — does it speak to a more fundamental desire to decouple from our established financial system of rules, gatekeepers and power-brokers? If we can’t occupy Wall Street, is the path forward to dis-intermediate it?
It also remains an open question to me to what extent bitcoin is actually fulfilling its real mission of decentralization. Bloomberg estimates only 1,000 individuals own 40% of available bitcoin, while the majority of bitcoin creation (mining) itself is also a tight-knit oligopoly.
Is Coinbase that much less centralized (or self-interested) than NASDAQ or Fidelity?
Are the mining pools that much less centralized (or self-interested) than the derivative desks at Goldman or JPMorgan Chase?
And if all the entrances and exits to the bitcoin ecosystem aren’t censorship resistant or truly P2P, what does that mean for the future of the currency?
Adrianne Jeffries, editor of The Outline smartly points out:
“This is not entirely the fault of the greedy middlemen; Bitcoin is simply too intimidating for most non-programmers to use without the help of apps like Coinbase.”
Things also get interesting when you step back from crypto and ask more fundamental questions, like:
Is spending a form of free speech or expression?
What governance, restrictions and oversight should exist in a financial system that’s both free, fair and safe from manipulation and abuse?
The answer to that has many implications, ranging from blockchain development to campaign finance reform.
On this topic in particular, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section.
The fourth and final link in our broader censorship conversation rests with identity censorship. Because free communication, information or financial access are just a few aspects of who you are and what you do day-to-day — there’s a more fundamental right to freely and safely exist in the first place.
If you’re a woman, minority, poor, or identify as a member of the LGBQT community, are you an equal player in our prevailing political, economic and social power dynamics? And, if and when you’re not (because a lot of data confirms you often aren’t), are you able to speak out and expose those imbalances without being attacked or censored?
From Weinstein’s army of spies recruited to silence his sexual abuse victims to black identity extremists being labeled a violent, domestic threat despite zero effort by the White House to do the same against the more real and dangerous threat of white identity extremists, there’s a clear pattern of censorship directed at activists, progressives, whistleblowers and anyone else on the margin.
With the public prominence of authoritarian, white supremacist and predatory inequality movements, there’s a grand tension across our statehouses, voting booths, streets, workplaces and homes between existing power structures and those looking to dismantle them in favor of freedom, equality, decentralization and freedom from censorship.
At the end of the day, we live in a world of unrivaled abundance, innovation and information-flow. But we’re only better off in it as humans and equals if we can overcome censorship and champion the right kinds of freedom, privacy and progress, without making that another step toward different structures and forms of censorship.
This isn’t a liberal, conservative, socialist or libertarian issue, it’s a fundamental human rights issue.
[I’d also like to offer a concluding hat tip to Jonathan Levin at Chainalysis, Kareem Rahma at Nameless and my brother Brad at the Harvard Department of the
History of Science for a few of the coffee conversations that helped inspire this essay.]