When tech aids free speech

Topics Blockchain

The battle for Freedom of Expression (FoE) on the Net is like an arms race. FoE advocates develop harder-to-censor technology, and pro-censorship lobbies develop new ways to censor and pro-FoE advocates then respond with newer ways to sidestep censorship again.

FoE is now a precious commodity, given the large number of authoritarian governments using all their resources to block content they dislike. “Web 3.0” will be partly driven by the battle for FoE. One way to create a censor-resistant Web 3.0 could be via blockchain adaptations. This may radically alter internet architecture.

Using blockchains as anti-censorship tools may seem odd but consider what a blockchain does. A blockchain is a distributed electronic ledger invented to manage cryptocurrency. It can be public with open access, or private with permitted access. A blockchain can be decentralised: Different entities can control different blocks and many copies of the blockchain may exist.

Each block is an “address” controlled by an entity with a private encryption key. The entire chain can be copied multiple times. Data stored in the blocks can be read and verified by many entities. But that data can only be changed by the holder of the private key to that specific block. Changes are time-stamped and reflect in every subsequent block. The “read-only” access to a blockchain cannot be easily cut off, due to the mirroring effect of multiple copies. Therefore, to hack a blockchain and delete data, or change it, every copy of the blockchain must be hacked. This is why corporates are starting to use blockchains to plug internal fraud.

One early example of using a blockchain for FoE was the so-called Peking University case of 2018. A student reported a sexual assault and committed suicide. Her friends alleged a cover-up. Their accounts were censored. One letter detailing the cover-up was then disseminated via blockchain, embedded in transaction metadata for the cryptocurrency, Ethereum. Chinese service providers were instructed to block access to all Ethereum transactions because the letter itself could not 
be deleted.

An internet built on blockchains would use blocks, to host websites. Or, blocks could be used to store links to redirect surfers to data repositories. Compare this to current internet architecture where numeric internet protocol (IP) addresses are associated with Uniform Resource Locators or URLs. This Domain Name System (DNS) is administered by a non-profit, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which subsists on US government funding. This is a centralised architecture. It is relatively easy for governments to block websites, hack them, or to discover ownership.

Instead, both data and apps could be hosted via blockchains. The original bitcoin blockchain is cumbersome and slow. But much of the delay is caused by the computer-intensive calculations used to generate new bitcoins, and verify each crypto-coin transaction. Eliminating the unnecessary calculations and redesigning an FoE blockchain could make things go much faster.

If such FoE blockchains were hosted on decentralised clouds built on the same principles, it would be even harder to interfere with, or interdict them. Governments could be forced to use brute force methods by shutting down the internet, or cutting off 4G access for all users. This somewhat defeats the purpose of censorship, since it becomes obvious something is being censored. India has an awful track record in this respect by the way.

A blockchain internet architecture would have downsides though. Somebody, or many somebodies, would have to design, implement, and manage it. This implies censorship falling in the hands of private sector entities, who may be compromised, or pressurised. We’ve already seen how flawed this process is, given the experience with social media platforms.

Apart from this, phones and laptops can be stolen and cryptographic keys can be hacked, of course. Legal liability would have to be rethought for hosts too, since blockchains could be used to immutably store child-porn, or explicit bomb-making instructions. A blockchain-based infrastructure may also exacerbate the existing digital divide between the skilled and the ignorant.

Governments are now starting to use blockchains for record-keeping. Moldova uses blockchains to prevent child-trafficking by recording iris scan data of minors. The World Food Programme (WFP) uses a blockchain to distribute aid to 100,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. The refugees scan their irises at supermarkets when they pick up food. The WFP pays the bill. This sort of usage also has scary implications since private personal biometric data is stored.

Technology is ultimately a tool. It can never replace legislation and the moral principles underlying legislation. FoE is acknowledged as a fundamental right by most governments, including those which punish citizens who actually exercise the right to FoE. A blockchain-based FoE model could however, force governments to confront their hypocrisy in this respect.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel