As network theory predicts, power is becoming more concentrated in our connected world. The unfortunate side effect is that a handful of entities now control our online lives. Here are a few recent examples of how this raises new problems.
On Dec 17, Tumblr was the latest in a string of platforms¹ to ban adult content. The official explanation was that this would create a "safer" space for their communities. And yet, the timing of this announcement was telling. Only a few weeks earlier the Tumblr app was banned from the App Store for accidentally hosting child pornography. This ban showed that Tumblr's business was dependent on larger companies like Apple. In fact, it exposed how firms like Tumblr rely not just on tech platforms, but on compliance with the biggest platform of all — the United States government.
Since the passage of the FOSTA/SESTA sex trafficking legislation² in April, any business which "knowingly" facilitates trafficking is liable for civil damages. Unfortunately, "knowingly" has not been well defined in legal terms. This means that any app or website that hosts illicit material (even user-uploaded) is at the whims of what some call "a trial lawyer bonanza of overly-broad civil lawsuits"³
By trying to protect us from the horrors of sex trafficking, goverments and companies have made online sex work even more difficult and dangerous.
Of course, there are other online menaces from which protection is demanded these days. Hate speech is a growing threat with real and terrible consequences⁴. As with sex trafficking, the policies used to combat it are incredibly broad.
Platforms of all types are now sensitive to even the barest hints of hate. In the past few years, we've witnessed numerous Twitter bans and Youtube demonitizations⁵ (not to mention removal of DNS access in older cases⁶). Now smaller platforms like Patreon are policing hate speech too. Whatever one thinks of the deplatforming of figures like Sargon of Akkad or Naomi Wu⁶, the idea that livelihoods can be taken away so easily is chilling.
Free-market worshippers say that these are private institutions that can do as they please — competition will ensure that viable alternatives pop up. And yet this doesn't happen. When creators moved from Patreon to Subscribestar, Paypal pulled their support. As some have noted⁷, payment providers can act like an additional layer of shadow censorship.
In a world of monopolies and centralized power there are no easy solutions to these problems. The history of music piracy and the Recording Industry of America is instructive in a search for paths forward. The 3 main options before us are:
This is what happened when Youtube took on the MPAA and the RIAA. With their own army of lawyers, Google was able to defend the sharing of music and movie clips under "fair use" provisions. Still, the music business does only about 9 billion a year in revenue and it still managed to go toe-to-toe with a 700 billion dollar tech behemoth in court.
While copyright laws didn't change much after 1998, there is some reason to be optimistic on this front. As "digital natives" the current generation takes free access to information for granted. Many were successfully mobilized to defend against the SOPA/PIPA bills in 2012. Of course there were a few big tech companies on their side of the fight to help. And even then, a major battle was lost when the FCC ended net neutrality last year.
The front line in the fight against the recording industry was BitTorrent. Broad, decentralized music piracy is what finally convinced the RIAA to be reasonable. Unlike Napster which hosted its own servers, BitTorrent was a decentralized hydra. It could always sprout a new head. To borrow a phrase from the world of IT, there was never a single neck to choke.
In the fight against online censorship, it seems like decentralization is the most viable strategy. As Pia Mancini of Argentina's Net Party so eloquently put it, "if you can't beat them, abstract them".
Right now multiple crypto solutions are competing to provide banking services to those who are denied them by our current gatekeepers. One of the most fascinating is SpankChain. Unlike traditional adult payment platforms, SpankChain is decentralized and cannot be shut down by payment processors. Their token, the appropriately named SPANK exists as a currency that users of their cam site can spend instead of dollars. The whole system is laid out nicely here.
Of course like any crypto story in 2018, there were highs and lows. After a successful ICO, the company had to survive declining token value and a major hack. Still, this service is lauded by users⁹, creating a truly safe and encouraging space for sex workers to make a living.
On the speech front, multiple online personalities such as Dave Rubin¹⁰ and Jordan Peterson are now accepting bitcoin in lieu of cash. Similarly, instead of subscriptions, Scott Adams is accepting the purchase of tokens from his startup WhenHub. Yes, these solutions have yet to provide the scale or secutity of Patreon. Still, they offer hope of a world where creators cannot be controlled by distant financial elites.
Sex and speech, two pillars of the human experience are now at the mercy of multiple disparate institutions. This is a problem that is becoming more visible each year. I personally don't identify as libertarian and am generally skeptical of technological solutions to social problems. And yet, it seems clear to me that the only way to tackle censorship in the online age is to rely less on large organizations.
If cryptocurrencies really do represent a return to the decentralized internet, then maybe they also represent a viable approach to fighting the censorship that stifles our online lives.
1 — Craigslit personals voluntarily shutdown. Backpage was seized by the Feds. Switter had it's CDN service suspended by Cloudfare.
2 — a good explainer on FOSTA/SESTA and it's effects: https://twitter.com/CookieCyboid/status/1070751515823013889
3 — See Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Technology Association. https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/14/16308066/sex-trafficking-bill-sesta-google-cda-230
5 – Besides inflammatory figures like Alex Jones, sex workers are also regularly banned from Twitter: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/3kjawb/sex-workers-say-theyre-being-pushed-off-social-media-platforms
6 — The fight against Wikileaks was instructive in how all the tools of the state could be martialed against someone
7 — The Naomi Wu and Carl Benjamin controversies (like most of them) are complicated but definitely not as one-sided as many mainstream outlets would have us believe: https://twitter.com/jackiehluo/status/982087205907607552 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Benjamin.
8 — For example, MasterCard seems to have have forced the removal of controversial author Robert Spencer from Patreon –https://twitter.com/nickmon1112/status/1079146042350858241
9 — I've heard that besides the low fees, Spankchain also creates a welcoming and warm environment for performers. They've paid out thousands of dollars so far: https://www.coindesk.com/spankchain-eth-crypto-porn-camgirl