Blockchain-based Way to Limit the Power of the Tech Giants

The CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey publicly questioned his social media’s arbitrary decision to suspend Donald J. Trump’s account permanently. He asked himself online if the solution to the current imbalance in power was novel technology motivated by the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.

When YouTube and Facebook barred the accounts of thousands of Trump supporters and white supremacists, they migrated to alternative social media networks like LBRY, Minds and Sessions. The common attribute of those sites is that they were inspired by Bitcoin’s design.

These developments were part of a movement by people from all walks of life to replace some of the internet’s basic building blocks in a manner so as to make control harder for tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

For this to occur, they focused heavily on new technological ideas introduced by Bitcoin, which was built on an online network designed to decentralize power.

Unlike the other kinds of digital money, Bitcoin is created and moved only by a wide and disparate network of computers, not by any financial institution. It is a bit similar to how Wikipedia can be edited by anyone who would like to assist, rather than just one publishing house. The technology behind it is the blockchain―a reference to the ledger where all of the records of Bitcoin are kept.

Companies are now being inspired by blockchain and other similar technology to create their own social media networks, store content and host websites without the supervision of any central authority. It will be difficult for governments or companies to ban accounts or delete content this way.

These experiments have suddenly been thrust into the limelight after the tech giants used their influence in a manner that has brought about questions on their power.

After the Capitol rampage on January 6th, Facebook and Twitter halted Mr. Trump from posting online, with the claims that he had violated their rules in inciting violence. Amazon, Google and Apple ceased collaboration with Parler, a social networking site popular with the far right, on the grounds that the app did little to limit violent content.

Although liberals praised the actions of the companies, conservatives criticized them. Scholars of the First Amendment and American Civil Liberties Union stated that private entities should not have the right to choose who gets to stay online and who doesn’t.

‘Even if you agree with the specific decisions, I do not for one second trust the people who are making the decisions to make universally good decisions’, said Jeremy Kauffman, founder of LBRY, a decentralized service for streaming videos.

Dozens of start-ups now offer substitutes for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Amazon’s web hosting services, all on decentralized networks and ledgers. According to the data company, SimilarWeb, many of these services gained millions of new users over the past few weeks.

‘This is the biggest wave I’ve ever seen’, said Emmi Bevensee, data scientist and author of ‘The Decentralized Web of Hate’, an article about the migration of right-wing groups to decentralized technology. ‘This has been discussed in niche communities, but now we are having a conversation with the broader world about how these emerging technologies may impact the world at quite large scales’.

Bitcoin first came to the spotlight in 2009. The creator, a suspicious fellow known as Satoshi Nakamoto said its general idea was to allow anyone open a digital bank account and keep money in a way the government couldn’t regulate.

For a few years, Bitcoin was only mildly popular among online admirers and people who wanted to buy illegal drugs online. As its value began to increase, people in Silicon Valley noticed the unusual technical qualities behind the cryptocurrency. Some were of the idea that the technology could be used to redesign produce tracking to online games.

The hype died down as the underlying technology proved to be sluggish, easily bugged and hard to access. Now, more investments have begun to reveal an efficient software for people to use.

In the previous year, Arweave, a blockchain-based project for storing and displaying websites permanently made an archive of documents and sites from the uprising in Hong Kong that provoked the Chinese government.

Minds, a blockchain-based substitute for Facebook was created in 2015 and also became a new home for right-wing personalities and neo-Nazis who were barred from mainstream social networks. Minds and other start-ups were funded by capital firms such as Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.

Mr. Dorsey has been a big proponent of the trend and has discussed the possibility of decentralized social networks through Twitter. He has also promoted Bitcoin through his other company, Square, a financial technology provider.

His public approval of Bitcoin and Bitcoin-inspired designs occurred around 2017. Close to the end of 2019, Mr. Dorsey announced Blue Sky, a project to develop technology with the aim of giving Twitter less influence over the people allowed to use the service or not.

Subsequent to suspending Trump’s account, Mr. Dorsey said he would hire a team for Blue Sky to consider his discomfort with Twitter’s power by towing the same line with Bitcoin. On Thursday, Blue Sky published the discoveries of a task force with the job of considering possible designs.

Twitter refused to make Mr. Dorsey available for an interview, but said it intended to ‘share more soon’.

Blockchains are not the solution to those looking for alternatives to Big Tech’s power. Recently, many people migrated to some encrypted messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram which do not need blockchain. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Signal said that decentralization made it difficult to build good software.

However, there has been increased experimentation with decentralized systems over the last month. Brave, a new browser recently announced that it would soon begin integrating a blockchain-based system known as IPFS into its software so that web content could become more reliable in the occurrence where big service providers are down or try to ban sites.

‘The IPFS network gives access to content even if it has been censored by corporations and nation-states’, said Brian Bondy, co-founder of Brave.

At LBRY, the blockchain-based substitute to YouTube, the amount of people signing up daily has increased to 250% from December, said the company. The newcomers appear to be Trump fans, white supremacists and gun rights advocates who violated the rules of YouTube.

After YouTube took down the latest videos from the white supremacist vlogger Way of the World last week, he tweeted: ‘Why do we waste our time on this globalist scum? Come to LBRY for all my videos in HD quality, censorship free!’

Megan Squires, Professor at Elon University who researches new computer networks said blockchain-based networks faced obstacles as a result of the underlying technology being difficult to control.

‘As a technology, it is very cool, but you can’t just sit there and be a Pollyanna and think that all information will be free’, she said. ‘There will be racists and people will shoot at each other. It’s going to be the total package.’

Mr. Kauffman said LBRY had made preparations for these situations. Although anyone can create an account and register content on the LBRY blockchain which cannot be deleted by the company, most people will have access to videos through a site on it. This allows LBRY to enforce some policies on moderation, similar to the way Google can filter out spam and illegal content in email, he said.

By Marvellous Iwendi.

Source: The New York Times