Updated: May 7
The internet began as a medium of free speech. It was a place for people to exchange thoughts and ideas in a way never before possible. From forums to chat rooms to obscure websites running in basements - the internet was mostly unregulated and to a great degree, decentralized. People were left to mostly self-regulate themselves and the online communities they were involved in. Self-regulating online is not a recipe for unlawfulness, in fact, it simply mirrors the physical world where the vast majority of people don’t need a police officer watching to keep them from becoming a criminal.
But things have changed.
Human behavior has not changed; there is no evidence to show we are any more likely to break the law today based on what we see online than we were in the early years of the unregulated internet. But what has changed is that most of the information we consume online is coming from an increasingly smaller number of sources. Most of the thoughts and ideas circulating through the internet pass through servers owned by Google, the big social media platforms and a handful of news outlets. This troubling evolution is resulting in predictable outcomes.
Google and social media have come under fire recently for censoring the speech of their users. What started as a seemingly well-intentioned attempt to shut down hate speech in a few extreme cases now seems to have only been an experiment to see just how much censorship the population was willing to tolerate. Unfortunately, the masses not only accepted this erosion of free speech, but many enthusiastically called for more.
The Predictable Outcome
The problem is that by funnelling most of the internet’s information through only a handful of platforms, the power to regulate speech is consolidated into the hands of only a few. While nobody will argue that hate speech and criminal activity should not be tolerated online, we are seeing a dramatic increase in censorship that seems to serve only certain special interests. For example, Google was recently caught blocking articles from search results that were unfavorable to the pharmaceutical industry. and Twitter almost openly restricts some political speech. Whether you believe a certain type of speech or topic should be censored is a debate that should take place. But it should be decided in the public forum, not by a small group of individuals, most of whom answer to shareholders and not the general public.
How to Fix the Problem
The decentralized web, or Web 3.0, takes control away from this small group of powerful players and hands it back to the users of the internet, where it belongs. It does this by distributing data throughout the internet rather than being stored on, or passed through, a centralized control structure. In simplified terms, a website on the decentralized web makes copies of itself, and these copies are distributed across the internet. These copies are in constant communication with each other, continually verifying they are all exact copies. If a change is requested, it is authorized and accepted across the network. By having multiple copies, trying to censor or manipulate data from its original form becomes extremely difficult. For example, if a country wanted to remove all mentions of a certain ethnic group, they might be able to seize control of some copies of websites on the decentralized web and scrub them, but the other copies would recognize this as an unauthorized modification and either repair the modified copies, or remove them from the network. Many parallels are made between Bitcoin and the decentralized web as neither have a central control structure.
The decentralized web is not being built as a safe space for hate speech and illegal activity; this couldn't be further from the truth. It is a space for self-regulation, where people enjoy the same freedom to exchange information online as they do in person. Sitting at the dinner table, you don’t first upload your thoughts to a company server to be censored and fact-checked before speaking, and it should be no different over the internet. Decentralized web proponents believe the internet is for the free the exchange of thoughts and ideas, and should be regulated by its users alone.
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