Heresy, Privacy & Censorship #1: Monero, Peepeth & DTube, Kierkegaard
Immutable platforms & privacy coins resist censorship in different ways. Do we want the future they promise? (on Bitgenstein’s Table, the Crypto Philosophy Podcast)
That’s not patriotic! That’s sedition! That’s heresy!
For thousands of years, people have questioned the decisions of their overlords and have been suppressed. Sometimes by burning at the stake, or machinegun fire, sometimes by secret agents and subversion, sometimes by financial sanctions and sabotage.
Immutable platforms and privacy coins resist censorship in different ways. Do we want the future they promise?
On Bitgenstein’s Table, we consider 2,500 years of human thought in philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, and more to make better decisions. Some episodes will focus on investment decisions, but most will focus on product decisions: what kind of world we want to build with decentralized technologies, in particular cryptocurrency.
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Policing the thoughts of the people has always been a difficult and bloody affair.
For most of human history, the suggestion that you were guilty of heresy, sedition, capitalism in the Soviet Union, or communism under McCarthy, meant death. Or at least social death.
Whoever holds power believes that their thinking is right, obviously, and that the thinking of all others is wrong and should be suppressed.
No major power-seizing movement I know of has been an exception to this rule.
Under Roman Imperial dominion, Christians were massacred.
Under Christian dominion, Arians were massacred.
Under Islamic Mongol dominion, Christians were first treated well — and then, they were massacred after a battle in Turkey went the wrong way, and the tolerance of Christians was blamed for the defeat.
Violence between religions continues in various ways today in Nigeria, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
But suppressing the thoughts of others isn’t just about heresy.
Censorship isn’t just a religious tendency. It’s a general human tendency.
Governments have long feared those who speak out against their practices. “Sedition,” they call it.
Some in the American colonies were hanged for it. Some in pre-revolution France and Russia were executed for it.
As the tide turned in all three countries and the revolutions began to succeed, the murders swung the other way.
Suspected Tories were lynched, suspected monarchists were slain by the guillotine, and suspected tsarists and capitalist spies were shot and shipped to Siberia by the thousand.
Governments are terrified, and so, they decide they must also be terrifying.
Sometimes, these acts of terror seem to work.
You’ve probably read 1984. Big Brother wins in the end, and thought rebellions are squashed. Sometimes, that’s how it goes.
Other times, government suppression backfires, and the flames of criticism are only fueled as martyrs are created and the cause grows more powerful.
In both my digital and physical circles, there are recent stories of specific individuals being censored by corporations.
The two recent stories I’ve followed most closely involve two very different people, and the censorship was conducted by two very different organizations. But for the same reason.
Censorship is a single phenomenon that can cut both ways.
Rob Rogers is one of the two people. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. For 34 years, since the year 1984 — hey, look at that, 1984 again — Rogers has drawn political cartoons for the press in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area in the United States. (1984 was the year President Ronald Reagan was reelected.)
Rob Rogers was fired earlier this year, and the “final straw” in the story seems obvious: a political cartoon Rogers drew that was critical of United States President Donald Trump.
Shortly after this happened, another story broke. Divisive right-winger Alex Jones had his social media accounts shut down on multiple platforms. Whereas in the first case there was little outcry from the right side of the spectrum, this time there was little outcry from the left side.
Censorship can cut both ways on every subject.
Politicians and people, fads and fashions, moral standards and sensibilities are things that shift like sand. Often, they rock back and forth from one generation to the next, like pendulums.
You might be free from censorship today, but that’s no guarantee for tomorrow.
Of course, some people argue — and they’re legally right about this, whether they’re ethically right or not — that private corporations have the right to censor content on their platforms. To take an extreme case, what if Twitter became a platform for neo-Nazis, or on the other side for some genocidal planet-saving cult out of a Tom Clancy novel? What if this group growth hacked their way to a position louder than all the other groups there?
Maybe Twitter really does want to protect society from turning into something out of the Handmaid’s Tale. But even if they don’t care about that, wouldn’t everyone to the left of the neo-Nazis or to the right of the genocide cult abandon Twitter as it becomes known for extremism? To protect its business, Twitter has to protect its brand, right?
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, likewise, has a large number of Trump supporters or at least sympathizers among its readership. They’d be risking their place in the already-struggling newspaper business if they kept Mr. Rogers on.
So perhaps the places we get our media, the places through which we see the world, shouldn’t be run by corporations.
Can we create organizations and platforms that are uncensorable?
We’re trying. Early decentralized social networks are starting to come online, and they resist censorship with permanence.
One such network is Peepeth, a decentralized alternative to Twitter. The “eth” ending is a nod to Ethereum, the network Peepeth operates on. Peeps on Peepeth are forever. Once they’re written to the blockchain, there’s no taking them back, barring some massive network-wide event like the sun going supernova.
The Ensō is used on Peepeth to encourage the creation of dignified, beautiful, and timeless content. Although a symbol…peepeth.com
As we all know, in most blockchain projects, information can never be removed from the blockchain once it has been added.
Of course, there are a couple of problems with censorship resistance.
First, “forever” is a long time.
Do we really want to build social networks on a completely unmoderated blockchain, open to any content, posted permanently, posted without moderation, posted forever?
I spoke with Bevan Barton, the creator of Peepeth, about this very point.
The blockchain’s immutability is often misinterpreted as the reason Peepeth exists. It is not.
Rather, Peepeth is focused on cultivating mindful engagement and positive contribution. The censorship resistance of the blockchain plays an important part in that, but censorship resistance is not the end in itself.
I like the Peepeth project. It’s quick and pretty easy to use, and lets you verify yourself via Twitter and even Tweet whenever you Peep. And Peepeth isn’t running an ICO or launching a token — they’re just putting on a Kickstarter campaign to raise $60,000 for app development.
The “mindful engagement” that Bevan refers to is the factors that make Peepeth users more hesitant to post bad content they’ll regret later. Though Peeps are free now for users above a certain threshold — Peepeth covers gas costs — they may cost a tiny amount in the future. Even if you’re paying $0.001, you think a little more about posting first.
And Peeps are permanent. Undeletable.
The idea is that the festival of spam and mindless nonsense that Twitter has become in so many circles will not flourish on a platform like Peepeth.
Peepeth’s setup is meant to discourage users from posting things they will regret deeply years later. But still, the main question remains. Imagine if everything you posted in your teens was public.
In a future where things are permanent, will people suffer forever for the mistakes of their youth, like the poor suffering souls from a number of Black Mirror episodes? Maybe.
Or will society, employers, and investigators become more understanding of posts from years back, as it becomes clearer than everyone has skeletons in their closet, mistakes in their past, and shifts in their views over time? I hope so.
So what about anonymous users?
With their identity separate from their posts, they won’t suffer from many of the consequences of posting Peeps and other content they might regret deeply later.
Well, that leads us to another issue:
Anonymity unleashes the baser desires of people by eliminating consequences and accountability.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” And what happens in Westworld really stays in Westworld. At least in season 1.
Being anonymous, unaccountable, unconcerned with consequences, can unleash the darkest sides of us. 4chan is an example of where humanity goes when anonymous — and 4chan is far from the darkest place hidden in the various levels of the Internet.
Peepeth isn’t a place that focuses on anonymity, but users can be anonymous, if they wish.
Bevan says Peepeth is taking a middle-of-the-road approach that incorporates both censorship resistance and moderation.
A common assumption is that Peepeth.com must be an “anything goes”, un-moderated platform, because the blockchain is immutable. That is not accurate.
Like any other site, Peepeth.com is moderated. It cannot remove data from the blockchain, but Peepeth.com will not display content that violates its code of conduct.
Enforcement is transparent because of the open datastore. So, although Peepeth.com can remove content at its discretion, it is accountable to users because anyone is free to audit Peepeth’s enforcement of its terms of service.
Also, anyone can build and use another front-end for the same set of open data without Peepeth.com’s permission.
Bevan also notes that “Kickstarter backers at the $25 tier and up will have the option of auditing moderated content on Peepeth itself.” You can find the Peepeth campaign at kickstarter.com.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would see another issue with all of this: with social media, everyone becomes an expert.
Further leveling of everyone on social media platforms just aggravates this problem. (Anonymity potentially aggravates it even more, but we’ll get to anonymity later.)
Even though our views change over the years — at least, they do if we’re thoughtful people — we tend to think that the views we hold today are correct, reasonable, and that they are the views we will hold for the rest of our lives.
We often consider the opinions we hold to be expert opinions, regardless of whether we’ve even studied the subject in question.
Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote about these issues in the 1800s. How did he write about problems with social media and the Internet in the 1800s? Well, he was addressing the same phenomena in the press.
His concerns, if correct, are amplified by the Internet, which is a much, much easier platform to publish to than the press.
Give everyone a platform, and everyone suddenly has an “expert” opinion on everything.
This is especially true with celebrities. Basketball players with speaking platforms have opinions on legal cases, Larry King has opinions on blockchain and renewable energy, and people consult with astronauts to see what they think of sustainable fishing or child soldiers in Uganda.
But this is also true with non-celebrities. The more your neighbor is on Facebook, the more things he or she will confidently post opinions about. And people with true expertise struggle amidst the noise of the many who don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.
And majority rule — the community voting on which opinions are true and which are not — might not be a good gatekeeper.
The majority has often been wrong. And the majority can be cruel.
Public opinion is often fickle and full of fallacies.
Søren Kierkegaard pointed out that the press created a sense of “public opinion.” More and more people were able to engage in the political conversation, and that conversation moved from public debates where those who stated opinions had things at stake — to private venues, to coffeehouses, to bars, to Facebook walls, to 4chan and reddit threads — to places where people can discuss things anonymously. To places where people can discuss things without risk. And in many cases, to places where people can discuss issues which don’t really affect them. Issues where they don’t have “skin in the game,” or where they have undisclosed or subconscious conflicts of interest.
I’m a big fan of thoughtfulness, of thinking through things before stating opinions, but many Internet users post replies or even blog posts on topics of monumental importance with no more than a few seconds of thought.
Of course, everyone should be allowed to speak, to have opinions, to argue for opinions. So this is an interesting problem. If we create a society where everyone is an expert — whether than means public opinion rules, or that self-proclaimed experts muddy the waters, or both — will human knowledge and progress suffer as a whole?
This future, where the playing field of expertise becomes more and more leveled, seems inevitable to me. It is already here. As our world becomes more decentralized, perhaps our best hope is education.
Censorship is also sometimes advanced by financial or economic interference, including seizure of property.
One story I remember from British history concerns the import of Bibles. The English Church, which was at the time Catholic, didn’t like when the populace read the Bible in English. A man named William Tyndale translated much of the Bible into English. In so doing, he invented a number of phrases we still use to this day, such as “under the sun,” “fall flat on his face,” “the land of the living,” “pour your heart out,” “go the extra mile,” and many, many more.
But authorities opposed the work. The Bishop of Durham, Bishop Cuthbert Tonstall, had to put a stop to this, so he bought up all the Tyndale Bibles he could in order to burn them. Ironically, an insider sent the money to Tyndale, so it ended up being a helpful effort. Without that insider, perhaps English would never have even gotten the phrase “fall flat on your face.”
Economic attacks of all kinds to control people have been common. Communists under McCarthy had to hide their pamphlets to avoid being fired. Economic censorship has ranged from international war to the homes of ordinary people. Terrorists in less lawful countries have their bank accounts frozen. Youtubers who say something the platform doesn’t like get demonetized.
If we could create financial anonymity, it would prevent the latter — and perhaps also the former.
YouTubers who have been demonetized by arbitrary YouTube guidelines are not being strictly censored, but the action is indeed a form of censorship.
Now, there is DTube, a Steemit project. DTube is a decentralized video platform that looks and works much like YouTube — without the threat of censorship and demonetization.
I’m starting to post Bitgenstein’s Table episodes to DTube. You can find them at d.tube/#!/c/bitgenstein.
But let’s get back to financial anonymity.
The government or other actors could attempt to take steps to prevent you from making money on DTube, thanks to the transparency of the blockchain involved. This would be an indirect form of censorship, reducing your ability or your incentive to post content.
For this and similar reasons, many projects think that transparency needs to take the back seat and let anonymity drive.
Anonymity, the ultimate in censorship resistance, has been an idea in the Bitcoin community since near the beginning.
Tumblers were used to launder bitcoins but could also just be used by privacy-conscious individuals. The early technology CoinJoin anonymized payments by grouping them together, so that a number of people pay into a pool, and then another number of people are paid from the pool. DASH optionally includes a similar technology in its “Private Send.”
The largest cryptocurrency known for its anonymity, Monero, runs on an extension of the same principle, with its RingCTs or Ring Signature Confidential Transactions.
Other coins offer anonymity in different ways. Zero coin technology, adopted by Zcoin and more recently PIVX, severs the story of a coin’s history with each transaction by burning the coin when it’s received and then producing cryptographic proof that a coin was burned. That proof of burn then serves as a new coin.
Another privacy coin contender, Zcash, uses ZK-snarks (zero-knowledge Succinct Non-interactive ARguments of Knowledge) where “zero knowledge proofs” allow parties to prove to each other that they know things without actually revealing what it is they know. ZK-starks (zero-knowledge Succinct Transparent ARguments of Knowledge), a more recent development, will take this even further by allowing this proof without the reliance on a trusted setup that ZK-snarks rely on.
Some of this may sound crazy, but it’s made possible with very complex cryptography. Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin has suggested that Ethereum is investigating the implementation of ZK-snarks or ZK-starks.
Some cryptocurrencies use TOR to mask IP addresses. Other privacy technologies are in development. Mimble Wimble, which will be used for the currency grin once it is released, doesn’t build ring signatures or zero-knowledge proofs on top of a Bitcoin-like system like most solutions. In a MimbleWimble transaction, “all values are fully obscured.”
Privacy technology is coming.
Smart contracts may ultimately be private, too — projects like Enigma are working on this. (Check out Guy Zyskind’s short article introducing Engima smart contracts.) Though accomplishing this will be a feat of engineering, it will be done.
But here we have a debate.
The big cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ethereum, will offer optional privacy before long. It’s sort of already achievable with Bitcoin, using the right tools.
But in order for people to be safely private, doesn’t everyone need to be private?
To demonstrate what I mean, let’s improvise a story.
It’s the summer of 2015. Mr. Martin Boddy has been murdered in his mansion. There are ten main suspects.
Eight of them have unencrypted text messages which have nothing incriminating. The other two are security professionals, Colonel Catsup and Professor Persimmon. They use a messenger with encryption.
Police focus their efforts on these two, and it is soon discovered that Professor Persimmon once had a fight with Mr. Boddy over a girl, Scarlett, two decades previously.
It’s enough for a warrant, and police find photographs of Professor Persimmon and Scarlett in the professor’s study, amidst piles of other mementos from the past, and right next to a suspiciously dented candlestick that seems weighty enough to kill a man.
They have their primary suspect.
Joking aside, you might see how a person who chooses privacy when it’s optional immediately seems more suspicious to everyone. In order to really have safe privacy, you might need to have universal privacy.
The Monero team also argues that privacy-optional protocols like DASH hurt everyone’s anonymity. Put very simply, it’s hard to know what x is when you see the equation x + y = z. But it’s easy when you see 3 + x = 5. If only a small portion of transactions or accounts are anonymous, state actors or bad actors have a much easier time at detective work.
But speaking of state actors and bad actors, what if they take advantage of privacy themselves? How will there be any accountability? Any investigation? Any enforcement of law?
It’s here we run into two ideas in blockchain that I think are sometimes at odds: transparency and privacy.
If we hope for a better world, a utopia even, is that a world where crime and corruption is difficult because records are transparent?
Or is it a world where people are able to follow their convictions and passions and ambitions without being afraid of suppression and censorship because transactions are private?
Which one of these futures is utopian, and which is dystopian? Is there some of both utopia and dystopia in each of these futures?
We’ll explore these futures next time on Bitgenstein’s Table, the Crypto Philosophy Podcast.
Thanks for reading.
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The next two weeks, as I mentioned above, will be two short stories of the future. Which one is utopia, and which one dystopia? That’ll be for you to decide, so join me next week on Bitgenstein’s Table, the Crypto Philosophy Podcast.
Peter Keay is the Director of Globalization at ICO Alert and host of Bitgenstein’s Table: the Crypto Philosophy Podcast. Since childhood he’s been a programmer, a keyboardist, and the incarnation of nerdliness.
He’s lived in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and India and cares about reducing suffering — by exploring the intersections between technology, science, history, and philosophy to build a better future.