Blockchain technology has three specific properties that it brings to the table at one and the same time — immutability (of data), transparency (of processes) and anonymity (of users).
So given these properties, notably immutability, it is surprising that there is very little discussion out there on the impact that blockchain technology is likely to have over the longer term on freedom of speech.
Up until now, there have basically been two basic schools of thought on the subject. There is the Libertarian school which states that all expressed ideas should not be subjected to any kind of censorship; the second school of thought, which sees itself as more pragmatic, argues that some forms of expression should be subject to curation. The latter of these two schools manifests itself in political form — within some liberal democracies, at least — as laws which seek (or claim to seek) restrictions on forms of expression which incite hatred or violence.
Of course, this raises the subject of who decides what can and cannot be said, and that is where the issue gets thorny. But that is, in a nutshell, where things currently stand. Actually, it may now be more accurate to say that this is where things stood— because, today, we have blockchain technology which makes it possible, for the first time in human history, to create immutable content anonymously. And this essentially means that our first school of thought — total and unrestricted freedom of speech — wins out.
In other words, once content is submitted to the blockchain — an article, a podcast or a video — it stays there regardless of whether there exists any law or unhappy soul which decrees that it should not be so.
Whatever your prior thoughts were on whether we should allow for unrestricted free speech, you will now have to accept that the technology has resolved that particular philosophical question on our behalf.
But there needs to be recognition that this creates new problems going forward.
One problem with free speech, of course, is that it is open to abuse. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” American sociologist and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. Absolute free speech absolutely does not preclude people who talk absolute complete nonsense . We have all seen the internet. And when nonsense goes on the blockchain, it stays there.
So that raises a whole new question — if content on the blockchain can neither be modified, corrected nor removed, can we find a mechanism that filters for slander, lies and malicious gossip? Upon first thought, even entertaining the idea that you can somehow tackle the problem appears Utopian.
But it is precisely this specific problem that a project known as Augur appears to have solved. And here’s how they did it …
Augur describes itself as “an open protocol for predictive markets.” It is, in other words, a betting platform where no-one is in control. It leverages blockchain-secured smart contracts to match a user’s bets with a counter-party (another user who sits on the opposite side of the bet). And those same smart contracts collect the money in crypto-currency form — this is a blockchain platform, after all - from users on the losing side of the bet and re-distribute to those on the winning side.
So you should now be wondering — if no-one is in charge, how does the platform determine how a betting market is resolved? How does Augur know who won last Saturday’s Malaysian Grand Prix? Naturally, Augur relies on feedback from users. And that raises the next obvious question: how can we trust the feedback from users? How do we know that those betting markets aren’t being manipulated by bad actors to cheat the system for their own profit? To put things another way, how does Augur go about ensuring that the content on its blockchain can be trusted.
To solve this problem, the Augur platform “aligns incentives with outcomes.” What that means in practice is that a market’s creator will report back on the result of the betting market that he or she initially created. However, if anyone wants to contest the outcome reported by the market creator — because they feel that someone has cheated the market, for example— they can do so. When a dispute arises, the Augur platform then opens up to all users and says: if you want to get involved, come and put your money where your mouth is.
In other words, the assumption is that liars, trolls, the self-deluded and other bad-faith actors will either be discouraged from manipulating the platform because of the cost, or alternatively will be financially out-gunned by the rest of us — and we get their money in the process.
This is a system, then, which allows for any kind of content on the blockchain — but with a strong filter for specifically shit or malicious content. The system may not be infallible — a billionaire liar, under these terms, could have the financial clout to get his own manipulative content onto the blockchain. But, in practice, this hasn’t happened yet with Augur, a platform that was launched in July of 2018. At the time of writing, you won’t find a single example of any one of its 2000+ resolved markets having been reported inaccurately. No mean feat for a platform with no-one at the helm.
Now take this system and apply it to a news context. In the UK, for instance, libel laws currently act as a gag on unrestricted free speech. In theory, the system is designed to counter malicious journalistic behaviour. In practice, these laws have become a tool for the rich and powerful to serve their own interests— even in cases where what is being reported is true, fair and in the public interest. Editors rarely fail to comply with a judge’s order.
But in a blockchain-based news context, a judge’s ruling will no longer hold the same kind of sway: he or she simply won’t be able to silence the news if the news platform itself is underpinned by anonymous reporters submitting content to a blockchain-based platform that only publishes content you know you can trust - particularly if it is backed up by an engaged, activist community that is determined to see the censured content reach its public.
Blockchain technology has, in other words, potentially shifted the balance of power in favour of the public when it comes to improving accuracy and combating censure — at least in theory. We know the technology is there to allow for it. It now remains to be seen if we can take advantage of its possibilities.
This article is an adapted version of an original piece which appeared on DappSheet.