Decentralizing the web amidst debate on censorship, 8chan ban

August 7, 2019


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8chan is banned in a knee-jerk reaction to two mass shootings in the US over the weekend, launching another round in the censorship debate, along with decentralizing the web.

Security company Cloudflare announced on Monday that it withdrew support for the controversial messaging board, 8chan, forcing it offline.

Read More: Are you really buying Facebook’s privacy-focused vision? Op-ed

Once again the censorship debate moves towards web decentralization and the freedom of speech.

Projects like Handshake seek to decentralize one aspect of the internet and contribute towards a censorship-resistant world wide web.  What are the merits and faults of it amidst strong debate currently surrounding censorship?

To Censor or not to Censor?

Vile as it may be to some, there is a viewpoint that a censorship-resistant internet is the best outcome for society.

In the US, the First Amendment facilitates free speech with the proviso that speech that is likely to incite imminent violence can be punished.  This legal standard has been established as per a case which dates back to 1969 (Brandenburg v. Ohio).

The internet is packed full of opinions and viewpoints that we don’t agree with.

However, is it not better to leave the means for discussion in place and have law enforcement seek to punish the individual author(s) if the line is crossed and such actions are deemed to be likely to incite imminent violence?

Otherwise, we have to consider who it is that has the authority to deem a particular viewpoint to be palatable or otherwise to the general public.

Corporations cannot be trusted for such a purpose.  Yet a corporation enjoys such protections under the First Amendment too as it exerts control over what appears on or via its own platform.

This sounds reasonable at first glance but if that private entity is dominant to the extent that it can suppress content entirely, I would argue that this is a net negative for society.  US law on the subject was implemented at a time when media platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter didn’t exist.

Read More: Big tech employees voicing ethical concerns echo warnings from history: Op-ed

In the US, much of the discourse has centered around alleged discrimination against conservatives by the tech giants.  However, in a scenario where a market dominant social media platform is allowed to moderate, that has the potential to affect participants from all sectors of politics or society.

As an example, Democratic presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard recently sued Google amid claims that the tech company violated her right to free speech.

Settling the Issue with a ‘Handshake’

The debate on the need or otherwise for censorship is likely to continue whether that be in the US or elsewhere.  However, it is not stopping some in the tech community from taking practical steps to combat censorship.

One such project which is playing its part is Handshake – a blockchain based initiative to allow for decentralized certificate authority and domain naming.

The internet uses a system of IP addressing but when it came to the user experience on the world wide web, it was quickly found that people don’t remember long sequences of numbers.  To deal with this a domain name system (DNS) was established, linking memorable website addresses with their underlying ip addresses.

Handshake is a decentralized and permission-less naming service unlike the centralized DNS that is commonplace today.  It doesn’t seek to replace DNS – rather to replace the root file zone and root servers.  This has the effect of making the root zone uncensorable, permission-less and beyond the control of any centralized authority.

The project also has implications in terms of security.  The padlock icon in your browser bar denotes that your connection to a website is encrypted.  This is facilitated by digital certificates issued by centralized certificate authorities.

However, if they’re hacked then internet security is undermined.  On Handshake’s blockchain based system, fake certificates are not a possibility as the blockchain is tamper resistant.

DNS itself has a security vulnerability in that it may be subject to a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack.   One of the biggest such attacks occurred in 2016, preventing millions of internet users from accessing numerous websites for a time.  The Handshake Naming System could act as a backup in such circumstances.

It’s still early days for the project which is currently running on testnet.  Mainnet is expected to be launched later this year.  Once that happens, domain names can be bought using the Handshake token (HNS).  The top 100,000 ranked domain names have been reserved to counteract domain squatting.

Despite its testnet status, VPN service provider Private Internet Access added the Handshake Naming System as an option for its users earlier this week.

Whilst the project has some clear positives, gaining critical mass in terms of usage remains an issue. Certainly, in places where censorship is more pronounced, it could gain more traction.

China’s great firewall could be rendered ineffective through the use of such a system.  Notwithstanding that, development in terms of active use is likely to be something that takes quite some time to achieve.

Towards a Decentralized Internet

The Sociable reached out to the Handshake project for comment regarding the banning of 8chan, but did not receive an immediate response at the time of publication.  The project seeks to decentralize website domain naming.  Other projects are progressing along a similar path.

The hit HBO series, “Silicon Valley,” featured a startup which aimed to decentralize the internet.  In the real world, that fictional account was based on Blockstack – a New York-based blockchain startup that seeks to accomplish such a future.

Whilst the debate on whether to censor and what to censor is likely to remain a perennial topic, it could well be that the technologists force the issue as once established, a decentralized internet will be an unstoppable force.


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