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Can new technology  protect free speech online? Part 2

In brief
  • Decentralisation makes it hard for a gatekeeper to interfere. 
  • Blockchain technology like that used by cryptocurrencies uses decentralisation.  
  • Blockchain  is starting to be applied to domain names and finances. 
  • Removing the ability to censor is needed to overcome the temptation. 

Decentralisation makes online censorship more difficult 

With the third generation of the World Wide Web known as Web3.0, new technologies that rely on decentralisation are emerging to help users safeguard their personal data online. 

One Web3.0 system to host websites is InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). IPFS spreads files across many computers instead of keeping them in one place. This type of decentralisation (known as peer to peer) makes it harder to censor information. 

Can new technology  protect free speech online? Part 2 - Centrist
The future is decentralisation and blockchain.

IPFS will play host to new companies offering decentralised domain names. Unlike traditional domain names overseen by a central authority (ICANN), there is no gatekeeper to cut off access. That makes it much harder for authorities to shut down websites or control access to certain content. 

Some decentralised tech is powered by blockchain. A blockchain is a public database or ledger shared across many computers. It is made up of “blocks” of data “chained” together using cryptography. They are not stored centrally, but throughout a network (that’s what makes it decentralised). There is no way to retroactively alter data entered into a block without altering all blocks in the chain throughout the network. The New Zealand government expects blockchain to become a major factor in the economy over the next decade. 

Decentralised messaging 

Privacy concerns plague messaging apps because users rely on centralised company servers. Therefore third parties like Meta and Twitter can censor users. Decentralisation  is tricky for messaging services because they are particularly data intensive. Any new blockchain like service would require large scale adoption, which requires marketing and investment. It’s also a technology in its infancy. Scalability, costs to update networks, and storage are all barriers to be overcome. 

Debanking and financial restrictions

Banks, credit card companies and online payment platforms imposing financial limitations and restrictions, and “debanking” customers have raised concerns about the trend towards adopting Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) and other highly centralised financial technologies.  

Censorship was evident in past cases involving Wikileaks or Gab, where financial restrictions hindered their operations. More stories are emerging in the media of people being cancelled and censored financially for holding certain (often conservative) political views. 

This weaponization of highly centralised financial services has helped drive the growth of peer-to-peer finance and cryptocurrencies. 

In places like Venezuela and Iran, individuals have been able to get around sanctions using decentralised blockchain technology. However, cryptocurrencies are highly volatile, speculative and have attracted a lot of scammers.  

Decentralisation and freedom of expression

Decentralised systems themselves have the potential to allow users some degree of mobility  beyond the reach and influence of governments and large institutions. Some argue certain kinds of code, like what’s used in cryptocurrencies, may be a form of free speech. 

While many are leery of decentralised tech, proponents play up the removal of counterparty risk and the reduced ability to restrict users. 

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