Freedom of Data: Freedom of Speech for the Digital Age
Freedom of speech. Freedom of expression. These are cornerstones of a free and democratic society. But how are these freedoms faring in the digital age? Not so well, and a reckoning is long overdue. As users flocked to internet platforms and adopted them as their primary channels for communication, those platforms were simultaneously being consolidated as large tech companies gobbled up their competitors. This resulted in an alarming amount of power concentrated into a select few hands — and the ensuing threats to free speech were predictable. With the relative ease of quickly deleting or autonomously censoring “data”, the silencing of voices can occur without anyone even realizing that it happened. Fortunately, new technology stemming from advancements in the blockchain space offers exciting solutions and possibilities to not only preserve freedom of speech but also to extend it to oppressed populations.
Let’s take a simple example of censorship: Bob publishes an article on his favorite platform which is critical of proposed legislation that the platform in question is actively lobbying for. The platform flags Bob’s post as a violation of something in the platform’s EUA (end-user agreement) or TOS (terms of service) and quickly removes the post. Anyone who happened to screenshot or otherwise save the post and re-share it is similarly silenced.
This seems fair enough, right? After all, if the platform is a private business — they can set the rules as they wish, right? Nobody is forcing Bob to use that platform. So, Bob decides to launch a platform of his own to express his ideas. That sounds good, but what if the parent company of the platform also maintains critical portions of the “backbone” used to host Bob’s new platform, serve it to viewers, or deliver traffic to Bob’s platform. What then?
Let’s take it a step further: what if Bob doesn’t live in a country that supports his right to free expression, and even if Bob finds a way to post his content online to a sympathetic platform — what if Bob’s country shuts down the internet access to the platform altogether? Now we’ve arrived at a real problem that exists in oppressive regimes today.
And this kind of silencing isn’t limited to government control of populations, but it also occurs behind the scenes in otherwise free societies where powerful corporations maintain an ever-tightening grip and control on views and opinions which don’t align with their goals, particularly in politics.
“But what if someone was discussing something dangerous that put themselves or others at risk?”
Certainly, we’d want that kind of thing to be monitored, right? But who should be the watchdog? Who decides what is “harmful” or “dangerous”, “exploitive” or just generally “offensive” and “a risk” to the community at large — as opposed to say, an arbitrary application of “TOS” against something that the watchdog simply wants to be silenced?
Freedom of Data.
Freedom of speech and freedom of expression should have reasonable limits (one can’t yell “fire!” in a packed theatre — one shouldn’t abuse the rights of privacy and protection of the defenseless… you know the drill). Law and order matters. Humanity needs restrictions, restraints, rules, guides, and so on. I’m not arguing for a “free-for-all”, and I’m not arguing for any set of moral principles.
But who should be the arbiter, and how do we ensure that rules are applied fairly? This is the problem that the digital age faces, and blockchain technologies are now answering back with solutions.
First, the solution should not be any single person or organization, and especially, it should not be an entity or groupings of entities with political or financial interests in the outcome. I argue that it should be the community that decides on which rules should exist and how they should be applied. Second, the solution must be robust enough to withstand aggression from dissatisfied powers that be, as well as safeguarded from attack by malfeasant actors (“hackers”).
So what’s the solution?
Let’s break that down:
(1) Democratization refers to the principle that a majority vote of “the people” should decide if something is inherently “right” or inherently “wrong” — good or bad — safe or dangerous. We already see this in practical application with rating systems on platforms where people can upvote or downvote something as “helpful” or “not helpful” — or flag content as “inappropriate”. The community should have control over what they feel they should or should not be promoted, available, and/or ultimately removed. Currently, platforms rely on either a moderator or artificial intelligence to determine if something violates their TOS — rather than a smart system controlled directly by the voting population.
(2) Decentralization refers to the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” concept: if all your data is stored in one spot (or a few spots which are subject to the reach of an antagonist or coalition of antagonists) then that single basket of eggs is at risk of becoming subject to the will and aggression of the powers that be. The decentralization of data though, by spreading it “everywhere”, prevents any single entity or combined entities with enough power from superseding the democratized framework with unilateral force. In short, decentralization PROTECTS democratization.
By combining democratization with decentralization, no single entity or group of entities can control the outcome, no single political party, world government, or mega-corporation. The ultimate decision of whether the content (speech, expression) should be “allowed” is decided by those who are subject to it: the people.
This is true “freedom of data” — which is just another way of saying “freedom of speech and freedom of expression” in the digital age.
Sounds like a pipe dream, right? Like “cool idea: it will never happen.” …
…but what if it has already happened? What if this technology has already been born? What if the fundamental digital infrastructure has already been built, and is already impossible to shut down? What if this train has already left the station, and there’s no power on earth (short of a global EMP) powerful enough to stop it?
I’m talking about a novel and cutting-edge technology that has been quietly spreading around the globe over the last three years, with users starting up servers in every corner of every country to support the network and strengthen the foundation in a compounding and immutable way. A small (but growing) community of volunteers have been dedicated to seeing this solution realized, and have recently renamed their project:
Want to head a little further down the rabbit hole? What is Etho Protocol? How does it work? What can it do? I’ll be unpacking more details about ETHO Protocol in my next post, so be sure to follow this page to be notified when it is ready. In the meantime, feel free to do some digging on your own at www.ethoprotocol.com
“Freedom of Data is the protection and preservation of the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression in the digital age.”