Seven words was all it took to unleash a new debate about censorship and freedom of speech on the Internet: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
That was on May 29, when President Donald Trump—railing against the protests held across the U.S. in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis—set off a firestorm of criticism and reignited a debate about censorship by social media firms.
What followed was the result of two entirely different reactions from the two dominant social media companies. Twitter, which has been President Trump’s bully pulpit of choice, decided that the president’s message violated its rules about glorifying violence, and hid it behind a warning.
Facebook, however, left that same comment up, saying it would not act as an “arbiter of truth”—and as a result, Mark Zuckerberg has been facing a growing backlash, including from his own staff.
This isn’t the only incident that’s made censorship a hot-button topic right now. Twitter has been experimenting with ways to reduce hate speech on its platform—asking users to “revise” posts if they include harmful language. The company had previously started fact-checking the president and labelling some of his tweets about mail-in voter fraud with “get the facts” warnings—and as expected, all this has been greeted with outrage and regulatory threats by Trump.
Some are concerned at how such big decisions about what’s acceptable are falling into the hands of these tech giants. Now, the blockchain-based domain name provider Unstoppable Domains is taking another approach: allowing the owners of .crypto sites to launch their very own decentralized blogs (dBlog for short.)
Unstoppable believes that the status quo is a big problem. Internet users can be censured for what they write based on where they live, or be judged in the wrong by a moderator making hasty decisions because of their overwhelming workload. Sometimes, even sharing someone else’s content can be enough to land an account in hot water.
According to Unstoppable, dBlogs can be built quickly. Posts—along with the images and videos that accompany them—are decentralized on the InterPlanetary File System, eliminating the risk of a blog being de-platformed by a centralized entity. Other than that, the experience is said to be similar to what’s on offer in the .com world, with a simplistic interface where new posts can be added easily.
In a June 11 news release, Unstoppable Domains co-founder Bradley Kam said: “As great as Medium and other blogging tools are, they rely on servers controlled by those companies. What I publish on those platforms isn’t fully under my control.”
The service has already been adopted by several well-known names in the crypto world—including the storied venture capitalist Tim Draper, who was No. 26 in the Modern Consensus list of this year’s 100 Most Influential People in Crypto.
Draper chose to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic for his first post, proudly proclaiming: “I believe in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. I do not believe in the Land of Government Control and the Home of the Fearful. I am over 60, so I would be considered ‘at risk’ from this virus, but I would rather die than sacrifice the freedom of my grandchildren and their children for my own well-being.”
(To be fair, Unstoppable is backed by Draper Associates.)
Speaking about Unstoppable’s launch, he added: “Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right that is being violated all over the world. Unstoppable Domains is offering a way for people to say what they want online without being silenced. This is something that the world badly needs right now.”
You don’t know Jack
What’s interesting about Twitter’s increasingly aggressive response to what it considers to be false or threatening content is that founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, a bitcoin and blockchain enthusiast, has also been proselytizing the virtues of a decentralized social media platform.
On Dec. 11, 2019, Dorsey announced at the beginning of a long thread that Twitter planned to hire a team of “open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.”
Among other points, Dorsey argued that “centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term.”
Indeed, blockchain and cryptocurrency firms have often found themselves censored on social media, notably in 2018, when Facebook, Twitter, and Google briefly banned crypto ads outright for months. While those policies were reversed, keeping ads and content up on Facebook remains problematic.
Then there’s YouTube, owned by Google-parent Alphabet. Its Christmas 2019 purge of hundreds of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency videos and channels was soon called an “error,” but problems (and suspicions) remain.
Closing the net on users
It isn’t necessarily the case that Unstoppable Domains wants people to start using dBlogs to write things that are outright illegal or offensive. Indeed, it cited research from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Freedom House that suggests 27% of all Internet users are at risk of being arrested just for actions taken on Facebook.
Freedom House’s sobering estimates suggest that 71% of us live in countries where people have been arrested or imprisoned for posting content about political, social or religious issues, while 59% live in a nation where authorities have deployed pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions. Alarmingly, 56% live somewhere that has blocked sensitive content online.
Its report painted a picture of social media in crisis—warning “what was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation.”
As reported by Modern Consensus at the end of March, Unstoppable recently struck a partnership with the Opera internet browser—meaning an estimated 80 million people who use this software on Android devices have been given access to decentralized websites for the first time.