Today’s Internet speech debates are a dead end -- what’s next?

·6 min read

Contemporary debates over social media content moderation are focused on centralized “Big Tech” firms. Members of Congress, upset with how Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube decide which content to remove, can hold hearings featuring CEOs and other important members of leadership. They can introduce bills mandating that large platforms carry certain kinds of speech, suggest common carriage regulation, or threaten antitrust enforcement. Yet Congress’s fixation on prominent Silicon Valley firms is unlikely to result in significant reform. In the coming years, we should expect discussions about online speech to shift away from regulating centralized platforms and towards creating decentralized alternatives designed for censorship resistance and privacy.

Content moderation by prominent digital platforms is fuelling much of today’s backlash against social media. Republicans are upset that Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter remove too much content, while Democrats are unhappy that they do not take enough action to stifle the spread of health misinformation, conspiracy theories, and content associated with white supremacists and elements of the alt‐right.

Unfortunately for lawmakers seeking to force digital platforms to host or remove content, it is unlikely that either side will be able to form a coalition of lawmakers capable of passing laws addressing these complaints via changes to Section 230, the law that shields interactive computer services from liability for most third party content. Even if such a coalition existed, the First Amendment would still block those seeking to force private companies to either host or remove speech. Although Section 230 is often in the news and widely criticized by lawmakers, attempts to amend it appear to lead to a dead end.

Among all this sound and fury, some entrepreneurs have turned to building alternatives to prominent social media platforms. On the political right, these include Gab, Parler, and GETTR. Each seeks to mimic the experience of Twitter while promising a more permissive content moderation policy guided by a commitment to free speech.

However, Gab and Parler both saw business support collapse in the wake of violence. Shortly after the October 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, payment processors PayPal and Stripe, webhosting company GoDaddy, and cloud infrastructure company Joyent all stopped providing their services to Gab, which the shooter had used to post anti‐semitic content.

A few days after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, Apple and Google removed Parler from their app stores and Amazon Web Services ceased providing web hosting support, effectively taking Parler offline. Epik, a service known for hosting right wing and racist content, provided Gab and Parler with the support necessary to resume service. In the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack, many Trump supporters and others on the right began using the encrypted messaging services Signal and Telegram.

If the 2022 congressional midterm elections prompt the spread of election conspiracy theories and risk of civil unrest, as I expect they will, we should not be surprised to see another surge in use of Big Tech alternatives.

That Epik helped bring Parler and Gab back online is of little reassurance to those concerned about Big Tech. Epik can act as a web hosting service of last resort for extremist platforms exiled to the hinterlands of Big Tech’s empire, but its lack of effective data security is likely to make potential new customers think twice. Even if Epik were able to reassure customers that its security had been adequately improved, such improvements do not solve the financial problems facing platforms such as Gab.

Centralized payment processors like PayPal, Venmo, Visa, Mastercard, and Stripe work with other centralized financial institutions such as banks. They are free to pull their support from organizations or persons they consider bad for business. Recently, discussions about payment processors pulling support from websites have focused on social media sites such as Gab, but we should not forget that in 2011 Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and Western Union all halted donations to Wikileaks after it published State Department documents leaked by Chelsea Manning. Anyone on the political spectrum can find themselves on the receiving end of a financial sector boycott given the right combination of political and cultural forces.

The risk of financial censorship has prompted many racist, extremist, and alt‐right individuals and institutions to embrace decentralized cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The appeal of Bitcoin is obvious: no one can shut down Bitcoin or erase a Bitcoin wallet. There is no Bitcoin CEO to haul before Congress, Bitcoin headquarters to picket, or Bitcoin server farm to unplug. Gab accepts bitcoin, as does Epik.

Bitcoin is not without its drawbacks. Its volatility and limited adoption make it a far from ideal currency. It is also transparent. The entire history of Bitcoin transactions are free for anyone with an Internet connection to examine. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled a list of Bitcoin wallets belonging to individuals known for their advocacy of racist content. Linking a Bitcoin wallet address to a particular individual is not easy, but a sufficiently motivated group of online amateur sleuths could uncover affiliations to extremist groups and individuals that many might want to keep secret. Chainanalysis’s report on Bitcoin donations associated with the January 6 attack on the Capitol showcases just how much information dedicated researchers can uncover about Bitcoin users who take steps to conceal their identities.

Those concerned about Bitcoin’s transparency can use cryptocurrencies designed with privacy in mind. The founder of the neo‐nazi website Daily Stormer abandoned Bitcoin in the wake of Donald Trump’s election defeat in November, 2020, urging his supporters to use Monero, a decentralized cryptocurrency designed to prevent observers from tracking transactions and wallet balances.

Orchid, another cryptocurrency project, provides users with a decentralized virtual privacy network, thereby hampering attempts by those seeking to surveill a user’s internet browsing. The Ethereum‐based Status provides a messaging app and cryptocurrency wallet via a distributed network without a centralized server. Like Signal, Status offers end‐to‐end encrypted chat services, but unlike Signal, Status allows users to generate numerous identities without having to sign up with a phone number.

Decentralized systems may end up providing the solution to the censorship concerns many on America’s right wing have. Censorship‐resistant social media platforms already exist. In 2019 Gab began running as a fork of Mastodon, an open‐source, decentralized social media platform. Mastodon released a statement opposing Gab’s fork, but was powerless to stop Gab using open source software. Twitter is already building Bluesky, a decentralized social media protocol

Americans across the political spectrum may look to decentralized social media and cryptocurrencies if their political allies continue to criticize household name firms. Those involved in protest movements as varied as Black Lives Matter and #StopTheSteal are especially likely to embrace such alternatives given their experiences with surveillance.

But Americans fed up with what they perceive to be politically‐motivated content moderation and Big Tech’s irresponsible approach to harassment and misinformation may also join an exit from popular platforms and use decentralized alternatives. If they do, members of Congress upset over the spread of specific political content, COVID 19 misinformation, and election conspiracy theories will have to reach beyond Big Tech and grapple with decentralized systems where there is no CEO to subpoena or financial institution to investigate.

In such a world, debates over online speech will inevitably shift from Section 230 and content moderation to debates that focus on the right to anonymous speech, surveillance, and the regulation of cryptocurrencies. Those working in technology and speech policy should be prepared for this shift.

Washington Examiner Videos

Tags: Think Tanks

Original Author: Matthew Feeney

Original Location: Today’s Internet speech debates are a dead end -- what’s next?

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting