Last week, Google and GoDaddy used the power that comes with being at the center of the domain name system to block a white supremacist website. They weren’t alone in their revulsion with the ideas expressed or in taking effective action against them.
But using control over the Internet’s plumbing to censor speech – even speech as vile and disgusting as this – is a wrong and dangerous path to follow. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains in a blog post that gets it exactly right, a weapon that’s used in a good cause can just as easily be used for evil…
All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with. Those on the left face calls to characterize the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group. In the Civil Rights Era cases that formed the basis of today’s protections of freedom of speech, the NAACP’s voice was the one attacked…
If the entities that run the domain name system started choosing who could access or add to them based on political considerations, we might well face a world where every government and powerful body would see itself as an equal or more legitimate invoker of that power…
These are parts of the Net that are most sensitive to pervasive censorship: they are free speech’s weakest links. It’s the reason why millions of net neutrality advocates are concerned about ISPs censoring their feeds…
Companies that manage domain names, including GoDaddy and Google, should draw a hard line: they should not suspend or impair domain names based on the expressive content of websites or services.
By saying there are circumstances when it’s okay to use technical control of the Internet to censor speech, Google and GoDaddy have put themselves in a bad position.
From now on, every group with a grievance against another group can demand the same action. Governments with a less than absolute commitment to free speech can require it, particularly the sort of regimes that hate-filled extremists aspire to emulate. They do not deserve and cannot be allowed this perverse victory.
Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are different from other software and standards-based platforms. There are no governing authorities or dominant players or established industry groups. That’s deliberate. The whole point is to create a way of exchanging value that’s not centrally regulated by governments or private organisations. But that means a super-majority of the millions of individual users have to accept and adopt software updates, or else there’s the risk that Bitcoin will splinter into different versions with different values.
That’s what happened last week. The debate within the Bitcoin community over the best way to increase the capacity and speed of the underlying software resulted in a tenuous compromise earlier this year between many users with different interests. But not all of them. So on Tuesday, another big group agreed on a different method of updating the software and began running it their own way, in the process creating a new version called Bitcoin Cash.
Anyone who had one Bitcoin on Monday now has one unit of Bitcoin and one unit of Bitcoin Cash. The splinter group is big enough that the new unit of Bitcoin Cash actually has some value. It’s fluctuated wildly, but might – might – be stabilising in the $200 to $300 range. On the other hand, it’s not big enough (yet) to have hurt the value of the original Bitcoin, which topped $3,000 for the first time yesterday.
The drama isn’t over. A cryptocurrency’s value is, from the beginning, the cumulative result of millions of freely made, individual decisions, rather than a declaration made by a central authority that’s then moderated by whatever market forces are allowed. The compromise within the original Bitcoin community hasn’t been implemented yet and could fall apart, producing even more versions of the currency. That’s the inevitable – purposeful – risk of an unregulated medium of exchange. So far, as Bitcoin holders learned today, that risk is overwhelmingly outweighed by the reward.
The disruption in cryptocurrency markets this week, when Bitcoin sorta split into two, was the result of disagreements between different interests about the technology and crowd-sourced methods used to run it. It was also inevitable and purposeful – cryptocurrencies are intended to rise and fall according to the cumulative decisions of millions – eventually, billions – of sovereign, individual users, who won’t always agree with each other.
Bitcoin’s underlying software can’t keep up with the growing number and speed of transactions between its users. The limits of the software has been a known problem for years, but the urgency of solving it has increased in the past few months as the strain on the system began to slow down transactions.
The solution is simple: upgrade the software. But sometimes simple things are supremely difficult, and so it is with Bitcoin.
It’s nothing like updating a commercial application like Excel or iTunes that’s owned by a single company – Microsoft or Apple just do it. It’s not even much like Linux or other widely used open source software that can comfortably exist with many different versions – distros – floating around. Linux might be open source, but any given installation is a closed system – so long as you’re satisfied with the way your preferred version runs on your hardware, all is well. Operationally, it doesn’t matter if the person sitting next to you uses a different distro.
But if you’re exchanging information with other people – which is what Bitcoin is all about – then everyone has to format and process the data in the same way. Email works because everyone has more or less settled on a set of open standards that are periodically updated by industry groups that include big companies, like Google and Microsoft. If enough of the major players agree then pretty much everyone else has to follow along, or risk being shut out.
The same principle applies to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but because schisms like we saw this week produce competing versions that, so far, have added value to the overall market and can be freely exchanged within their respective universes, there’s also an incentive to not standardise. By preventing consolidation into a single, monopoly platform, that balance has kept an ecosystem of independent cryptocurrencies alive.