Extremists Are Turning To Crypto, But Can We Do Anything About It?
The extreme right is turning to blockchain tech. Is there anything we can do about it?
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The shooting in El Paso this weekend took the lives of 20 innocent people. After it emerged that the alleged shooter had been using far-right echo chamber 8Chan to spread his message, Cloudflare announced it would cease the provision of cyber-security services, quickly forcing the site offline.
However, following in the footsteps of the Daily Stormer, 8Chan announced its intention to move its cybersecurity provisioning to Washington-based BitMitigate. BitMitigate has nothing to do with Bitcoin, but it does claim to have a “proven commitment to liberty.” But, in the prevailing political climate these days, “liberty” seems to have an uncomfortable overlap with violent extremism.
BitMitigate has some intriguing links to the decentralized world. It was previously acquired by a company called Epik, which provides software services including web hosting. One of its clients is Gab, an alternative social media network increasingly favored by the far right and other fringe figures as they’re forced off Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other leading social media.
Gab was previously blocked by domain registrar GoDaddy and PayPal, as the preferred platform of the mass shooter who gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year. It’s also the new social media home of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones and Richard Spencer.
Both platforms are now realizing the value of decentralization. After becoming non grata with PayPal, Gab is now accepting Bitcoin, which its founder Andrew Torba has referred to as “free speech money.”
The CEO of Epik, aptly named Robert Monster, took it upon himself to use decentralized file-sharing protocol IPFS to upload banned videos of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. Taking to Gab, he called the technology “crazy clever” for its censorship-resistance, and informed his fellow users that he was working on software to make IPFS “easy for anyone, with no technical skills required.”
Deplatforming racists is one thing, but not all censorship is (pardon the expression) a matter of black and white. Back in 2011, donations to Wikileaks were blocked by credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard, after the group exposed the secrets of the world’s governments.
In this case, the joke was on the payments industry. Wikileaks started canvassing for donations in Bitcoin, and founder Julian Assange later claimed in 2017 that the site had made a 50,000% return on the funds it collected.
The Beginning and End of First Amendment Rights
Voltaire supposedly offered to “fight to the death” to defend his opponents’ rights to speech, and the same principle underlies the First Amendment in the United States. But in a world where mass shootings are incubated and livestreamed on social media, the debate between censorship and free expression could very much become a “fight to the death.”
Philosophical musings aside, it seems unlikely that the First Amendment’s authors could have anticipated the mass murders that have now become commonplace, or that constitutional liberties would be used to shelter for hate-filled manifestos.
Furthermore, nobody can argue that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Cloudflare or GoDaddy have an obligation to tolerate this from their customers. Freedom of speech doesn’t apply private companies.
But in a decentralized network, nobody is in charge; censorship-resistance does not discriminate right from left. Although some dApps, like Peepeth, are accessible via managed interfaces which can restrict content, open-source protocols like IPFS or a blockchain can be used by anyone with the technical know-how to access them.
Therefore, as extremists and hate speech are pushed out of the mainstream, they’re likely to decentralized protocols to spread their messages. The question is – what should the rest of us do about the fact that we’re sharing these decentralized protocols can become leveraged by extremist groups? And, more crucially: what can we do?
The Democratic Case For Censorship Resistance
Public blockchains allow everyone to operate within its space freely and on an equal footing. Decentralized protocols do away with traditional power structures, which can appeal to liberals, libertarians and anarchists alike.
Many crypto projects such as Monero are inherently tied to the concept of privacy, and some exchanges still sell themselves on the lack of KYC. Blockchain is delivering private web browsing, self-sovereign data, decentralized finance and much more.
These technologies are already being used for good. Bitcoin is providing a financial safe-haven from Venezuela’s crippling inflation. The WFP has used distributed ledger technologies to provide food aid directly to refugees. And in an impressive demonstration of blockchain’s censorship-resistance, activists used the technology to penetrate the Great Firewall of China.
A Safe Space for Extremists?
But not all the beneficiaries of decentralization are so easy to sympathize with. Like the Chinese activists, Gab is making its bid for decentralization to overcome censorship. The platform is now attempting to raise series A funding for a move to blockchain, and recently migrated to the decentralized Mastodon social network, much to the dismay of Mastodon’s founder.
That came after Gab forked Brave back in April this year, in an attempt to create a censorship-resistant browser. The move led Brave CEO Brandon Eich to refer to Gab as a “parasite.”
Just as the privacy-conscious and oppressed can now find decentralized solutions so can extremists of every description.
Can Censorship-Resistance Be Conditional?
There are many others who share the views of the Mastodon and Brave founders and find the idea of sharing space with violent racism distasteful, but whether they have any choice in the matter is another question.
On the one hand, it’s impossible to imagine limiting censorship-resistant technologies to those with acceptable viewpoints, especially in the context of a decentralized environment.
On the other hand, the crypto space is already controversial enough, without becoming visibly occupied by extremists. If the next mass shooting is planned on a blockchain platform, cryptocurrencies could attract a very different sort of regulatory attention.
For advocates of decentralization, the question is which alternative is worse: a platform which forbids offensive expression, or a platform which cannot.