Can Bitcoin Fix Big Tech Censorship?

Today is the start of Hereticon, an annual conference that celebrates heretical ideas. Why celebrate thoughtcrime? According to Hereticon: 

While our culture is fascinated by the righteousness of our historical heretics, it is obsessed with the destruction of the heretics among us today

Most of the heretics of the past were wrong, just like today’s heretics. But history teaches us that leaps in human progress usually start with radical new ideas that are rejected by “experts.”  

Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who discovered the importance of handwashing in 1847, was universally ridiculed and forced into a mental asylum for advocating his views. Today, handwashing is one of the least controversial positions imaginable, but there is no shortage of radical ideas that will get you “canceled.”

While many blame “woke cancel culture”, “big tech”, or “big government, ” the root of hostility to heretical ideas is in our epistemology – our understanding of the origin of knowledge. To nurture radical new ideas, we need a marketplace of ideas that values both dissent and rationality. I believe that Bitcoin will play a major role in making these new marketplaces possible.

What Is The Problem?

The problem with “Big Tech Censorship” is not that big tech is run by the left. It’s that the enlightenment idea of objective truth has been replaced by tribalism. “Truth” is determined by group identity, not the relation of your ideas to reality. If a “majority” of “experts” say something is true then that is true. 

Reality is objective – it exists independently of our opinions. The only way to obtain knowledge is through empirical evidence and a valid epistemological process – what we call “the scientific method.” The means to discover the truth are available to everyone with an Internet connection today. The problem is that intellectuals on both sides of the political divide no longer believe people to be capable of evaluating facts for themselves. They think that we believe whatever the groups we identify with tell us to think. If it is impossible to have a rational discussion about truth, then force is the only way that we can establish the “truth.”

The Importance of Dissent

Moral and intellectual progress requires all issues to be open to debate.

We should value disagreement because we believe that every bold new idea begins as a radical thought by a single individual. An open marketplace of ideas is required for the best ideas to flourish. Just as material markets require the freedom to adapt to a constantly changing world, so does the marketplace of ideas. Any society that forbids open debate faces stagnation, decline, and ultimately ruin. This has nothing to do with whether the entity doing the censorship does so through government censorship or through “community standards.” 

It is fine for a community to exclude some views. A “community” is a group of people with like-minded ideas interests, and it is necessary to exclude disruptive individuals from such a group. But social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, TokTok, etc are not “communities.”

A social network is a platform for communities. Not allowing the communities within a platform to decide which views are acceptable leads to the decline of the entire platform. When such censorship is embraced by all social platforms, it leads to the decline of a society.

(Note: Politicians in democracies don’t like to censor directly, but they often employ the threat of censorship with Congressional hearings and the like. It’s usually impossible for users to tell whether a private platform censors of its own volition or under duress.)

More Closed Platforms Are Not A Solution

There are three reasons why it’s hard to compete with a Facebook or a YouTube:

First, 99% of the content that people want to post does not violate their rules. Of the 1% that is blocked, most is worthless, but .1% is vital commentary. It’s that .1% that we need to protect. It’s impossible to compete with Big Tech because that 99% of content has too much network lock-in for an alternative to succeed. (Sorry Parler, MeWe, Gettr, etc).

 A second problem is that any alternative to Big Tech platforms will start with users who Big Tech rejected. The alternative platform will require those users to survive. By virtue of being rejected by Big Tech, the alternative will be banned by Big Tech for refusing to censor “unacceptable” content. They will be kicked out of app stores, their payment provider will cancel, their web hosts will cancel, their SMS, auth, email, KYC, DNS, firewall, CDN, messaging, and every other service provider will cancel. As a CTO, I depended on over a dozen different services to power my organization, and over the course of 2020, most of them updated their terms of service to justify censorship of politically incorrect customers. 

The third problem is that running a platform is expensive. To pay for the platform, you need advertising. But if most (or any) of your content is what Big Tech rejected, you will find it difficult to attract advertisers. If you try to get users to pay for your service, your payments processor will fire you, as OnlyFans found out.

The Need For Decentralized Alternatives

The more intolerant the legacy networks become, the more motivation and expertise will flow into decentralized alternatives like Mastodon, PeerTube, ActivityPub, and Diaspora. 

However, content is not enough. To enable an alternative, we need to decentralize the content layer, the Feed, and the value layer.

Decentralizing Content

IPFS is a peer-to-peer protocol for censorship-resistant content storage.  

Decentralizing The Feed

The Feed is the personalized list of Facebook posts, Instagram photos, Twitter Tweets, & TikTok/YouTube videos you see to discover new content on each platform. The Feed can never be neutral or objective. The Feed is tailored to your interests, but it depends on both machine learning and product managers’ opinions about what you like. Because there is always far more content created than you can consume, each platform has to decide how to filter that content to maximize the appeal of their platform. This is necessarily a subjective process – should you see more news posts or posts from friends? Should you see more inspirational, graphical, or factual content? What content should be excluded entirely? These questions are data-driven, but ultimately humans decide on the tone of each platform. The Feed is very good at being addictive and is one of the main reasons why second-tier platforms cannot compete. The Feed is expensive to maintain, but being customized also makes it very valuable.  

I would like to see Content separated from Feed. Search engines are examples of Feeds competing for the same content, but we don’t have an equivalent for social networks. You should be able to create Content once, then choose what Feed service to use to discover other’s content. If a Feed becomes too intolerant or allows too much spam, I could switch to another Feed to find my content. My friends would discover my content through several Feeds, tailored to their vision of content discovery.

Decentralizing The Value Layer with Bitcoin

Until we have a censorship-resistant Internet, we cannot have censorship-resistant social networks. To have a censorship-resistant Internet, we need censorship-resistant money, because running social networks is expensive, and centralized payment services are single points of failure. Space on the feed has enough value to pay for decentralized networks, but we need censorship-resistant money for advertisers to pay for space on the feed. Bitcoin can fulfill this role.

What Can I Do?

  • Support decentralized payments by using Bitcoin
  • Use Brave browser, or another browser with built-in support for decentralized content hosting like IPFS.
  • Publish content on blockchain-powered content platforms like Steemit
  • Let me know if you have other ideas.

Addendum: Is Private Censorship Still “Censorship?”

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