The free speech row tearing apart the tech community

31 January 2021

7:00 PM

31 January 2021

7:00 PM

Donald Trump’s Twitter suspension after the riot at the US Capitol made headlines around the world. What was less reported, however, was that as the then-President was suspended, so too were tens of thousands of right-wing accounts. Their social media refuge was Parler, another micro-blogging platform.

Parler markets itself as a ‘free speech-focused and unbiased alternative to mainstream social networks’. Whatever its intentions, in recent years the platform has become a cesspit of extremist content. So extreme, in fact, that Amazon banned Parler from its hosting services earlier this month. The case is now going through the courts, after Parler launched a lawsuit.

What makes Parler an interesting case is that there was initially speculation it could be hosted on the blockchain networks used by cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (although Parler has since opted for a more conventional hosting system). For the uninitiated, blockchain is a special type of computer database for cryptocurrency transactions. It functions like a ledger and can record transactions between parties in a way that’s verifiable, permanent and, most importantly, anonymous.

So what unites an obscure social media platform dedicated to free speech and the fiendishly complicated databases used by cryptocurrencies? In short, libertarian politics. These networks do not have any top-down control, whether from governments or internet monitors; that is their appeal. If Parler moved its network to a blockchain, it would ensure its ability to survive without interference from Amazon or any government.

The problem is that if a service like Parler was hosted on such a network, messages that incite violence would be pretty much impossible to attribute. Funds could move to finance bombings, murders or other terrorist activities while remaining undetected by the authorities.

Indeed, fears of a far-right insurgency have spooked some big players in the cryptocurrency world. Vinay Gupta, who helped launch Ethereum, a major Bitcoin rival, responded in no uncertain terms to suggestions that Parler should move to Ethereum’s network: ‘You will regret it. We will collude against you. We will make your lives miserable. We will seriously figure out underhanded-yet-ethical ways to make your project fail if you force us to host it. Please, kindly, fuck off and build your own infrastructure. You are not wanted here.’

His belief that Ethereum should under no circumstances allow itself to become a haven for the far-right goes beyond political preferences: ‘If these people move on to our platform, we will be knee deep in terrorism financing lawsuits in 18 months. It is critical for the survival of the open internet that we are not a safe haven for fascists. Let me explain the logic… If Parler was built on Ethereum instead of AWS [Amazon’s network] right now we would be losing all of the non-blockchain infrastructure the Ethereum community depends on: websites, exchange licenses, bank accounts, IPFS infrastructure, Infura,’ he tweeted.

Gupta’s fears are far from unfounded. Reuters reported on 14 January that ‘payments in Bitcoin worth more than $500,000 were made to 22 different virtual wallets, most of them belonging to far-right activists and internet personalities, before the storming of the US Capitol.’ There is a real danger that a blockchain network could find itself complicit in acts that might fall under terrorism legislation. But there are those who disagree with Gupta’s approach. Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin has claimed that ‘Parler has a right to exist, full stop.’

At the heart of the matter is a conflict that has been raging in the tech world for years: how much freedom should there be online? This debate has particularly affected the crypto and hacking communities. Defcon, one of the world’s largest hacker conventions, effectively told alt-right agitators they weren’t welcome at its events in 2018. In the same year, Hope, another conference, was accused of refusing to remove ‘fascists and white nationalists’.

It’s not just in the US either: at CCC, a conference organised every December in Leipzig, an actual physical fight reportedly broke out between left-wing organisers and attendees accused of alt-right sympathies in 2019.

What comes up again and again, from Parler being shut down to Trump being banned from Twitter, is the tension between the right to free speech and the potential of these technologies to cause real-life harm. It’s about the threat that the far-right could pose if they had the expertise to utilise technologies like blockchain networks. And furthermore, how much of a presence the alt-right already has in the tech community.

Gupta tells me he believes the tension has arisen online because ‘the libertarians in the crypto-community look at the new left, the woke left, and what they see is Stalinism.’ At the same time:

‘The left hates libertarians because they’re individualist and don’t care about political correctness or the idea of society. So the libertarian position, that we are not responsible for what other people do, we are only responsible for what we do, is the standard Bitcoin political doctrine… Libertarians will say “you want to impose censorship on the blockchain, just like you imposed censorship on the internet”. What they don’t understand is that if we end up hosting that kind of content, the feds are going to shut us down. Fundamentally, the clash with a sovereign national state is one that the blockchain cannot survive.’

What is clear, as we have seen over the last month, is that the far-right can thrive in the space created by the (admirable, if at times naive) defence of absolute free speech. And it will fall on communities, like the blockchain one, to find a way to navigate these choppy waters.

The stakes are real: if self-regulation fails, nation states will start imposing their sovereignty over parts of the internet, in effect Balkanising it. The era of the free internet, where information flows (mostly) seamlessly, would be over. In its place would be a version of the internet that more closely resembles countries like Russia and China — heavily censored and subject to the whims of politicians. It would be a sad end for one of the greatest experiments in history.

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