What decentralization means for internet censorship | Ep. 2

What was internet censorship like in the early days, how has it changed, and what role does decentralization play.

Powered by the Filecoin Foundation, The Future Rules is hosted by Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau, alongside top legal mind in blockchain and Filecoin Foundation Board Chair, Marta Belcher. Together with some of the most renowned names in the industry as their special guests they dive into the future and the ethical issues that technology will raise, and how to address them today before they determine our tomorrow. From NFTs, to CBDCs and beyond, the team explores issues of civil liberties, law, compliance, human rights, and regulation that will shape the world to come.

Find more episodes in the podcast series: The Future Rules

In this episode, Danny O’ Brien, who’s been an activist for online free speech and privacy for over 20 years and is now a senior fellow with the Filecoin Foundation, tackles the world of internet censorship and how important it is for us all to get it right. He kicks off by explaining what things were like in the early days, or the “before times,” of the internet, and looks at how things are changing with decentralization and whether re-decentralization is a better word to use for what’s happening now. He also takes a dive into how decentralization can  enhance our civil liberties and considers what role blockchain technology will play in 30 years time.

Highlights

  • The internet as the nervous system of future societies: “So, I think when you think back to the early days and the early values of the internet, it’s really embedded in that particular time period. Now what we have is a network that needs to continue to carry the values and the sort of eternal values that any society really wants to have, because a digital communications network is the nervous system of any future society. And what we code into it will really spell out what society we’re going to see.” (Danny O’Brien)
  • How decentralization can help users regain control: “I think all of the troubles that we’ve seen since then ultimately come down to people feeling helpless, right? Feeling that they don’t have autonomy and control, they feel like a million people are shouting at them all at once, or they feel that like their most private thoughts, their most private communications are being scooped up by private companies, by governments. And for those of us who spend a lot of time in the sort of technical weeds of the internet and its political consequences, the medicine there really is to put the user back into control. That’s what decentralization is all about. Or re-decentralization perhaps is an even better word.” (Danny O’Brien)
  • The internet’s modicum of decentralization eroding: “The time was, and you look at the charts when people visited the internet, they would spend their time on a multiplicity of websites using a whole variety of services. And now the majority of our time is spent on a few mega-websites and a lot of the traffic, the internet traffic, is mediated in the background, not through a resilient network of networks, but through a few fat pipes, to a few companies running large data centers. From a political point of view, what you see is an increasingly contested environment, where the internet is seen as a political pawn to be played.” (Danny O’Brien)
  • Creating a permanent network for the world’s knowledge: “Instead of having a permanent store of the world’s information, you sort of spend all your time in this daily froth of the newest information. One of the solutions to prevent that is to essentially entrust that data to a few giants who have the capital and the technology to keep that data around. But the problem there is then suddenly you realize that you’ve entrusted not only the world’s knowledge but your most personal and private thoughts to these big companies. We want to be able to know that if we decide to nail a message to the wall, that it won’t be taken down by somebody who wants to rewrite history. And IPFS and the Filecoin network provide one piece of that puzzle. They provide the opportunity to create that permanent network, where the burden of holding that data is spread out amongst many, many contributors. And all it takes is for one of those contributors to feel it’s worthwhile to hold that data, and it’s held for everyone.” (Danny O’Brien)
  • Cryptocurrency restoring civil liberties: “The thing that’s so exciting about cryptocurrency technology, and about the decentralized web, is it gives people the ability to use technology, in order to enhance civil liberties. So cryptocurrency enables you to take the civil liberties enhancing attributes of cash, the reasons you would want to use cash instead of using a subway card, and import them into the online world. So suddenly you can be online and you can use technology, but you can do it in a way that’s preserving your civil liberties and your privacy and anonymity. And I think that’s so, so important. So I don’t think technology points either way, but I’m really excited about these new technologies that allow us to really regain civil liberties, that have been lost by the amount of technology in our lives.” (Marta Belcher)
  • The internet’s degree of democratization in 30 years: “In 30 years time…we’re going to live in a safer and more secure environment. You won’t have to worry about your computer crashing, or you not getting the right updates, you won’t have to worry about strange cyber ransoms going on, because we’ll have built things on a firmer foundation and a foundation that is closer to the user than these centralized services. What does that mean? Well, one, when you tell your computer to do something, it will do it. It seems such a simple thing, right? But right now, when I say send money over Paypal, right? There are three people in that transaction – there’s me, the person I’m giving money to, and there’s PayPal. There’s PayPal or WePay, deciding whether that’s OK as a payment. And in the future, gosh I sound like Carl Sagan, but in the future, you know, it’ll be me talking to you, or our computers talking to each other directly. It’ll be us negotiating as equal individuals and we won’t have this sort of strange veil that falls over our communications whenever we use a computer.” (Danny O’Brien)

Transcript

Angie: Welcome to The Future Rules. I’m Angie Lau, Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Forkast News.

Marta: … and I’m Marta Belcher, Chair of the Filecoin Foundation. In this podcast we’re going to dive into the future of technology and the ethical and legal issues it raises. Today we’re going to talk about internet censorship.

Angie: Internet censorship – remember the early days of the world wide web when it felt a little bit like the Wild West, but are those days truly over, and would we want them back anyway?

Well, there’s no one better to ask than Danny O’Brien!

Marta: That’s right. Danny is a senior fellow with the Filecoin Foundation and he’s been an activist for free speech and privacy for more than 20 years. He’s fought against repressive anti-encryption law in the UK and helped found the Open Rights Group, which is the UK’s digital rights organization.

So Danny, first of all, please don’t take this the wrong way, but could we start by sort of going back to “the before times” and talking about the early days of the internet:

Danny: It’s a pleasure and an honor to join both the podcast and the day job. Like most people in my generation, and actually all the generations subsequent, I grew up with the internet, even if it was in a sort of vestigial form. Here’s how it works – I’m actually the same age as the internet – really the first working ARPANET prototype was born in 1969 and so was I. And the sort of progression and the values that were embedded in the early internet, sort of the values that, you know, I grew up with.

I think that there was definitely, post the 1960s, a feeling that the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, at least in America, was something that we should move away from, that free expression was a positive good, and that we could work for that. And that also there were a lot of authoritarian regimes around. And so I was at college in the late 80s, 1989. The two things that really struck me at that time was one – Tiananmen Square.

So then we had an incident there, where there was an interesting sort of clash of cultures and a question about what was permissible in terms of free expression in one country, and what was being communicated externally. And I also grew up in a time when the Soviet Union was falling. And so suddenly there was a flood of new information going both ways. People were letting out more about what happened within the Soviet Union, and also after kind of being the receiving end of America, both as a symbol of propaganda and a symbol of hope, people finding out what the world was really like.

So, I think when you think back to the early days and the early values of the internet, it’s really embedded in that particular time period. Now what we have is a network that needs to continue to carry the values and the sort of eternal values that any society really wants to have, because a digital communications network is sort of the nervous system of any future society. And what we code into it will really spell out what society we’re going to see. 

Angie: I guess we’ve seen it evolve since then. I mean, when the internet was first born, there was a real ideology centered around decentralization. The fact that the network effect of people being able to communicate with each other, in a free way, for the very first time really opened up the doors to saying and sharing whatever it was that people wanted to communicate with on the internet.

Danny: You know, the original reason why the internet was decentralized and distributed was as an alternative to a communication system where everything went through a sort of central channel. And it’s funny you should say that that was an ideology, because I’ve actually just been on an email thread with some of the people that are known as the founders of the internet, people like Vint Cerf. They were arguing that that was not a political decision, that was a technical decision – it was just a more resilient network to build, when it worked that way.

The way I think of it is that, if one of those computers that reads your data around the world goes on the fritz, if it’s decentralized and distributed, there are other routes to take. If it’s not, then everything breaks down simultaneously. And just as spreading the authority, and spreading the capabilities of the internet as widely as possible, through all of its connections makes it more resilient, I think it’s one of those things that makes society more resilient as well.

I think it’s one of those things where most people, when they think of a healthy society, it’s when individuals have a degree of autonomy and also have a degree of responsibility to each other. And they’re interconnected, right? That people aren’t isolated and alone. And I think when you look at the benefits of what is really a huge achievement, a globe spanning digital network, that anyone who can find someone else who is connected to it, can also connect up to it.

All the benefits of that come from that ability to spread the power around. And I think all of the troubles that we’ve seen since then ultimately come down to people feeling helpless, right? Feeling that they don’t have autonomy and control, they feel like a million people are shouting at them all at once, or they feel that like their most private thoughts, their most private communications are being scooped up by private companies, by governments. And for those of us who spend a lot of time in the sort of technical weeds of the internet and its political consequences, the medicine there really is to put the user back into control. That’s what decentralization is all about. Or re-decentralization, perhaps is an even better word.

Angie: One could very much argue that we are no longer decentralized. In fact, these are very centralized nodes to the point where China’s got the Great Firewall, to other countries in the world where essentially internet access is shut off during a political event. We’ve seen also centralization of the internet through even commercial enterprises, like the Googles of the world, and the Facebooks of the world. I think the modicum of decentralization has kind of eroded.

Danny: That’s absolutely true. I mean, it’s true in a technical sense, and a political sense. The time was, and you look at the charts, when people visited the internet, they would spend their time on a multiplicity of websites using a whole variety of services. And now the majority of our time is spent on a few mega-websites and a lot of the traffic, the internet traffic, is mediated in the background, not through a resilient network of networks, but through a few fat pipes, to a few companies running large data centers.

From a political point of view, what you see is an increasingly contested environment, where the internet is seen as a political pawn to be played. I kind of understand why you might want to centralize things. Centrally run processes, they’re a good shortcut to making sure that things don’t go wrong, you know who to blame, you know who to call. But the problem is, is that when you deal with something as powerful as the internet, nobody agrees where that center should be.

So that has a geopolitical distortion. And, you also find that individual countries around the world – it’s sort of easy to kind of complain, and God knows I do, about countries shutting down the internet, but the other side of that is that the argument that they will make is that, well, they have sovereignty, they have nationality, they should be able to control this network.

The slight modification I would make to that, is that the people of that country should have some autonomy and control over that network, and they don’t because they’re caught between either the clumsy steps of their own country or these big foreign giants often, that mediate the rest of the traffic. I feel that the best way to allow people to communicate freely in the way that they want to is for them to have some autonomy and some control over the systems that they use.

Angie: Marta, as a civil liberties attorney and a fighter for these future rights that we all hold dear, I want to know, if we were a fly on the wall at that board meeting at the Filecoin Foundation, what are you guys really concerned about here, when it comes to technology and the future of civil liberties?

Marta: I think there are multiple angles on what Filecoin does and why Filecoin is important, and for us, we really see it as being the foundational technology for the next generation of the internet. On the technological front, the vast majority of data that makes up the websites that Americans use is sitting in data warehouses that are owned by just three companies, which is Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google Cloud.

And we’ve repeatedly seen these companies suffer blackouts and giant swaths of the web go down for hours. And that’s a big problem with having single points of failure. And so for us, we believe that you can have a better version of the web if you can combine the storage capacity and computing power on all of our individual devices into sort of a supercomputer like network, where you can store multiple copies of the data across these devices, and where websites can stay up even if some nodes fail, and what that means is that the availability of information is not dependent on any one server, or any one company.

Just as one example of the type of information that it’s really important to have up online and to have a robust foundation for, one of the things that Filecoin does is we store – so Starling Lab is a project at Stanford and USC, and it uses the Filecoin Network to permanently preserve the USC Shoah Foundation’s archive of 55,000 video testimonies of genocide survivors. So these are the types of things that many people have reasons to want to not be on the internet anymore. Another example is climate data.

There’s a lot of reasons that a lot of people would not want particular climate data to be publicly available and to be permanently preserved. But we think that if you can provide an incentive for people to contribute storage to this decentralized internet, which is Filecoin, you can create an internet where you can preserve humanity’s most important information and I think that has huge implications for our civil liberties.

Danny: What we’ve seen in the last 30 years is some flaws emerged in the early internet model,  and in an attempt to fix those flaws, we kind of threw out the baby with the bathwater. One of those, that I think everybody knows, is that the internet turned out to be much more transitory than people expected. If you go back to old websites, the links are broken, unless you go to the internet archive, which stores all these back catalogs.

And instead of having a permanent store of the world’s information, you sort of spend all your time in this daily froth of the newest information. One of the solutions to prevent that is to essentially entrust that data to a few giants who have the capital and the technology to keep that data around. But the problem there is then suddenly you realize that you’ve entrusted not only the world’s knowledge, but your most personal and private thoughts to these big companies.

We want to be able to know that if we decide to nail a message to the wall, that it won’t be taken down by somebody who wants to rewrite history. And IPFS and the Filecoin network provide one piece of that puzzle. They provide the opportunity to create that permanent network, where the burden of holding that data is spread out amongst many, many contributors. And all it takes is for one of those contributors to feel it’s worthwhile to hold that data, and it’s held for everyone. But there’s more to do, right? What else do we need, and how else can we plug that into what we already have?

Angie: Two things I see very clearly, as we’ve evolved this conversation, and it started off with “what was the before times like?” – when we define civil liberties, before the internet, it was super clear, right? I mean, it was, if you’re American, it’s right there in print, in the Constitution. So now fast forward 30 years later. How his technology, would you both say,   redefined, or reimagined how we define civil liberties today? 

Danny: I’m not the civil liberties lawyer in this conversation.  I’ve hung out with great lawyers like Marta for a very long time, and one of the things that we know is that it’s never written in stone, there wasn’t some glorious period where we knew exactly where we stood with human rights. They’re always being redefined by the technology around them. In many ways, every revolution that fights for human rights fights for the ones that they have learned to use and enjoy, as a result of the society and technology that they find themselves in. I mean, am I crazy in that that’s my read of the law here?

Marta: I think that’s absolutely right. I think cryptocurrency is a great example of where you can see that technology really amplifies power and technology has the ability to be something that is repressive and something that takes away civil liberties, or it has the ability to enhance civil liberties. So just to give you an example, in a cryptocurrency context, during the Hong Kong protests, I was really struck by this picture of the protesters in these long lines at the subway station, because they didn’t want to use their subway cards.

Pretty, simple technology – because that subway card would put them at the scene of the protest, right? And so just using this very simple technology would undermine their civil liberties and potentially open them up to very bad outcomes. And so for them, they were using cash. They were using this very, very basic, you know, non-technology, rather than using their subway cards, in order to maintain their civil liberties.

For me, the thing that’s so exciting about cryptocurrency technology, and about the decentralized web, is it gives people the ability to use technology, in order to enhance civil liberties. So cryptocurrency enables you to take the civil liberties enhancing attributes of cash, the reasons you would want to use cash instead of using a subway card, and import them into the online world. So suddenly you can be online and you can use technology, but you can do it in a way that’s preserving your civil liberties and your privacy and anonymity. And I think that’s so, so important. So I don’t think technology points either way, but I’m really excited about these new technologies that allow us to really regain civil liberties, that have been lost by the amount of technology in our lives.

Danny: I think that there is always an evolution with civil liberties. During transition moments, what you want to do, and I think this is the thing we keep returning to, is you want to preserve the best of the past and add the new benefits of the future, and not just go the other way, where you lose something that will continue to be of value and gain a whole bunch of problems in exchange. I think a lot of people feel the internet is a bit like that at the moment – I think we’re in a moment where we could end up with an internet that has all the worst aspects of digital technology, that we’ve come to know and be annoyed by, and none of the new benefits that we were getting. To put more of a finer point here – cryptography, which lies at the heart of the blockchain revolution and also has been around since the 1970s, is something that gives you the same kind of privacy, the same kind of confidence in the nature of your financial transactions as you had in the, as you say, “in the before times”.

It reflects the nature of money. It reflects, actually, and I think this is one of those examples which I find fascinating, which is that, you know in the real world, we sign with pen and paper, and we sign a signature. And that’s because, in the real world, it’s pretty hard to fake my signature, right? Like, it’s not an easy thing to do. In the digital world, it’s trivial – we can make a million copies of my signature, I sign it once, and you could take a screenshot and you could put it under any document that you wanted to. Hilariously, when I’m given a PDF on the internet to sign, they literally want me to draw my mark at the bottom of it. And some programs, actually if you use an Apple Mac, have a feature where you can just insert that signature, right? You draw it once and then you can put it in.

Well, that’s not a signature. A signature in the digital world is a digital signature, and that is provided by encryption, that gives you that confidence. A contract in the digital world is a smart contract and that’s provided to you by blockchain and other technologies like that. And the absolute literal equivalent to cash in the real world, is cryptocurrency in the digital world. And we could talk as much about how much we want to expand and grow our ability and our rights in the future, but in order to do that, we have to start with what we have already. And this is what these technologies are.

I think in many ways, the most conservative position a society can take is to adopt these technologies and then build on those as a firm foundation, as firm as the ground beneath their feet in the real world.

Angie: From the real world, “the before times”, and now we’re post Covid times, you know, transport us 30 years in future. I mean, this is literally what you guys are talking about all the time, Marta and Danny, I wonder, 30 years from now, what is the role of blockchain technology playing, to enforce new civil liberties that we care really deeply about?

Marta: My short answer is that I don’t think anyone’s going to be talking about blockchain technology in 30 years, I think it would be like talking about TCP-IP – no one talks about it, right? I mean, can you imagine if you had to go, you know, explain TCP-IP to regulators and beg them not to regulate it? My hope is that we’ll have a more decentralized web. At least the thing that we’re working on is trying to build the foundation for that decentralized web and provide incentives for it using blockchain and cryptocurrency. And so my hope is that this is just the thing that’s underpinning technology in the future and not something that we have to really even talk about, because it’s omnipresent and part of the technology stack, really way down there. Because, who even knows, it’s hard to imagine what types of use cases we’ll have. I’m super curious to hear your take on it, Danny.

Danny: I think so much of the conversation these days about the nature of technology really concentrates on the present. And I think that it’s really useful to think of future generations and the society we’re building. I also think, and one of the mistakes maybe we made 30 years ago, when we were trying to predict what will happen right now, is that we always express that as in terms of revolution. Well, I don’t think what we’ll see is revolutionary. I completely agree with Marta when she says that we’re not going to think about blockchain on a daily basis in that situation.

But one thing I would want to convey is the sensation that I have, the sort of pendulum swing that I want to pursue with our decentralization project,  is safety and security, right? I’m a technologist, and I don’t feel in control when I use my phone or I use my computer. I have that same kind of tickling in the back of my neck or I’m like going, what is this going to do if I click on this link? Like, what craziness is going to happen on my desktop, right? And I know, this is such an easy prediction, right, that I know that in 30 years time, because that sensation is so unpleasant, we’re going to live in a safer and more secure environment.

You won’t have to worry about your computer crashing, or you not getting the right updates, you won’t have to worry about strange cyber ransoms going on, because we’ll have built things on a firmer foundation, and a foundation that is closer to the user than these centralized services. What does that mean? Well, one, when you tell your computer to do something, it will do it. It seems such a simple thing, right? But right now, when I say send money over Paypal, right? There are three people in that transaction – there’s me, the person I’m giving money to, and there’s PayPal. There’s PayPal or WePay, deciding whether that’s OK as a payment. And in the future, gosh I sound like Carl Sagan, but in the future, you know, it’ll be me talking to you, or our computers talking to each other directly. It’ll be us negotiating as equal individuals and we won’t have this sort of strange veil that falls over our communications whenever we use a computer. 

Angie: I think you summed it up perfectly. Civil liberties of the future is going to be about personal control. I’m hearing that very clearly.

Danny: So here’s the thing about civil liberties, right, here’s the thing about human rights – the technical term is they are inalienable, which means that you cannot cede them to someone else. Someone cannot buy your freedom off you. Someone cannot take your privacy away from you. And also when you exercise those rights, it’s you as an individual who exercises them. And so when we will exercise the rights as we already do, through technology. That technology has to obey what you want and how you want to express it.

Angie: Well, thank you so much to our guest today, Danny O’Brien, senior fellow with the Filecoin Foundation. 

Danny: Thank you Marta, thank you Angie.

Angie: And of course my co-host, Marta Belcher, Chair of the Filecoin Foundation. 

Marta: Thank you so much Danny and thank you Angie. You can listen and subscribe to The Future Rules anywhere you get your podcast fix and find the full series on Forkast website. So we hope to meet you all again in the future.

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