Is Steemit Social Network Truly Decentralized?

Is Steemit really decentralized?

One of the youngest and most revolutionary blogging and social networking sites in the world, Steemit, was a breath of fresh air when it launched back in 2016. The privately held company promised a unique kind of service to its users. It looked to offer a new kind of social interaction that was free of censorship and favouritism that are the greatest weaknesses of the traditional centralised social networks.

Steemit was marketed on the promise of free speech for all, leveraging the Steem blockchain platform to revolutionise how individuals avoid government and corporate meddling in their choice of what to say and what not to. The company was marketed as the ideal solution to the abuse of power that lately defines top social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, who have time and again bowed to pressure from governments and advertisers to censor and even ban users who share even the most mildly controversial content. The age of true social media freedom was nigh, or so everyone thought.

The freedom that Steemit brought to social media is turning out to be a double-edged sword if events surrounding a hacker group ‘thedarkoverlord’ are anything to go by.

The 9/11 Conspiracy

To get a little context of events, let us take a step back to a week before all this drama unfolded.

A hacker group somehow laid their hands on confidential documents related to the 9/11 and all kinds of companies were tangled in activities that they did not want the public to know about. It appears that the documents contained invaluable information that companies mentioned would not want the public to access. Being the dark overlords they are, the group sought to make a buck blackmailing the mentioned companies by demanding Bitcoin payment in exchange for not publishing the documents in their hands.

The problem of course, is how the hackers could reach the mentioned companies and prove that they were not bluffing — that is, without getting caught by the authorities. Steemit’s promise of anonymity and ‘no-censorship came in handy. This is where the user ‘thedarkoverlord’ posted a link to the sneak peek of the images of stolen documents hosted on Pastebin. Based on the uproar the publication of the documents caused, it was clear they hackers had something. Reports from multiple sources show that the group managed to squeeze ransom off a number of companies including those in the insurance, property management, and other industries.

Decentralization fails thedarkoverlord

Thedarkoverlord had apparently attempted to publish expose documents on ‘truths about 9/11’ on traditional centralized platforms including Twitter, Reddit, and Pastebin, but as you would expect, all these platforms removed their content and banned their accounts. Their search for a way to evade government agencies and keep their illegal activities alive on the internet led them to Steemit. After all, the platform’s core advantage is that it does not regulate the content of its users and once published on the blockchain, remains immutable or very difficult to alter. To their surprise, the one place they thought they could publish the stolen information also banned them and removed what they had already posted on January 7th.

The ban of the hacker group was effective the moment Steemit developer RedBeard appended the username ‘thedarkoverlord’ onto a file with the name GDPRUserList as visible in the Steemit’s GitHub account.

User ban on Steemit a terrible precedent

Whether Steemit was justified in banning the group from its platform due to the nature of information they were threatening to expose or not, the fact of the matter is that Steemit has failed to live up to its original promise to ‘promote and uphold censorship-free interaction’ that has no caveat in its terms of service.

Just to clarify, Steemit did not remove the content published by thedarkoverlord; the platform merely removed public access to the content (it is virtually impossible to remove something from the blockchain — once you put something there, it stays there forever). This means that although the links to the content published by the banned account is still there on the blockchain, it just cannot be viewed via the Steemit platform. This is a big issue because in its whitepaper, Steemit proclaims itself a ‘witness operated decentralized network’ where ‘all user actions are publicly recorded on the blockchain’ and once publicly verified, ‘there is no single entity that can censor content that is valued by STEEM holders’.

The ban of the user thedarkoverlord may have just revealed the true nature of Steemit as a platform with a consensus protocol that is prone to centralization, no different from traditional social platforms like Twitter and Reddit. The people of the internet who believed Steemit and other similar front-end interfaces to the Steemit Blockchain network to be a safe place free from commercial and authority-instigated bans are very disappointed. They expressed their grievances on the GitHub commit page as well as on Reddit and on other social media platforms.

If Steemit was truly decentralized, the ban couldn’t have been so easy

Steemit claims to be a decentralized platform that uses a proof-of-stake consensus protocol that should not be susceptible to manipulation — not even by the company itself. This only reveals that the company is prone to situations where one person or a handful of stakeholders can make a decision and implement it without the full consensus of the public.

This whole drama with thedarkoverlord has revealed that other blockchain platforms that use this form of consensus including Ethereum are also susceptible to centralized decision making that undermine the whole concept of decentralization on the blockchain. While the rules of proof of stake may allow such censorship to occur (such as when removing child porn from the system), Steemit’s blatant ban of a user in contradiction to its core value proposition as proclaimed in their original Whitepaper is seen as a terrible precedent. This pokes holes in the claim that the platform is a decentralized social media platform of the future resistant to censorship.

What next for Steemit?

Interestingly, the public furor over Steemit’s actions has reportedly boosted the platform subscriber base, with more new members signing up than ever before. However, the fact remains that Steemit will have to make sweeping changes to their protocol and even terms of service if it is to regain public trust as a decentralized social platform that supports and advocates for free speech. As of now, Steemit is just any other social media platform susceptible to external interference.

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