Can decentralization help us save free speech on the internet?

Tech and Tools   |   
Published April 28, 2021   |   

Safety advocates and legal experts long opined that speech was too free on the Internet and many people sought to put frameworks into place in order to ensure civility. While this might have looked like a good idea at the time, the World Wide Web is now in danger of becoming overrun with censorship rules. As more and more data becomes hosted by a small group of companies, users are looking for other ways to speak their minds and get a message out.

It’s believed that over 30 percent of data is now hosted in the cloud, which is certainly attractive for businesses who want to remain agile. Individuals, however, are increasingly finding themselves at odds with the content guidelines laid out by these groups, so they’re turning to new decentralized ways to host their data. This might be the only way many people can enjoy the level of free speech they did when they first started surfing the web.

The Growth Blockchain-based Site Hosting Services

Initially, most industry commentators probably felt that blockchain technology wasn’t going to make much of an impact outside of the world of cryptocurrency exchanges. Since documents stored in a blockchain-based service are immutable, however, this paradigm is increasingly popular with content creators who fear that what they’re posting could be potentially de-listed at a later date. For instance, the LBRY and Odysee social video services record an announcement whenever a piece of content is made available. While they record important metadata that explains how a video or other piece of material should be downloaded, they don’t actually host them directly. Rather, this is done collectively through a series of distributed nodes that make it easy for viewers to find material without relying on a single central repository.

This is somewhat similar to the process used by those who run their own servers in order to deploy a self-hosted blog, which is becoming more common than it has in years. While operating a blog by yourself means that you have to absorb all of the hosting fees, it also means that you have complete control over the content that gets posted there. Editors who represent an outside organization won’t have any manner of censoring your posts regardless of how controversial they might seem to certain individuals.

ISPs have, at times, attempted to block access to sites that host controversial information in this manner by refusing to resolve DNS requests at the namespace level. This prevents users from loading them in browsers accessing a network through the ISP’s proxy. While it’s unlikely that ISPs will ever go after each individual who posts something that they feel violates some content policy, blogs that get a significant amount of traction could start to feel the banhammer come down as IS departments tweak the manner in which IP addresses get resolved.

That’s making some people turn to some unusual solutions.

A Dramatic Rebirth of Older Technologies

Not all of the advances taking place in the decentralized market rely on developments like blockchain. In fact, not all of them are even all that advanced. Some enterprising long-time netizens have returned to using protocols like telnet, which connect different devices together directly. Even the most primitive types of dial-up connections could theoretically act as servers by using the telnet protocol, so it’s easy to imagine how much mileage people running 5G mobile devices can get from it. Since telnet clients are all linked together directly, it’s hard to imagine that any outside source could censor what was being shared over them.

Security issues are a major problem when dealing with such antiquated protocols, however. Telnet protocols date back to at least 1969, so bad actors have had more than enough time to find exploits for them. As a result, some people have started to host their opinions in flat text files. Controversial material that might cause an uproar if posted on standard social media sites could instead be encapsulated in a traditional text file and posted to a discrete URL. Since nearly ever modern mobile browser can read text files, this information is accessible in what’s essentially a vendor-neutral format.

In an attempt to further distance their activities from would-be censors, some proponents of text-based communication have turned to a wholly new open-source protocol called Gemini, which is completely divorced from any networking stack that revolves around RFC 15 and other related standards.

Developing a Truly Distributed Hypertext Ecosystem

Back in 2019, a semi-anonymous developer called Solderpunk put together a hypertext protocol that’s based totally around Markup language instead of traditional HTML documents. Since it’s generally only used for transmitting text documents, Gemini Space has the feel of a traditional eZine as opposed to a modern social media outlet. While this might turn off those who are used to feature-rich content, it’s certainly proving attractive to people who have something to say and don’t want to be censored regardless of who they might offend.

Each transaction is roughly analogous to a get request filed to HTTP servers. Unlike blockchain-based technologies, Gemini makes use of a conventional TLS handshake, which makes adding support for the protocol trivial. While some may fear that use of this kind of protocol could lead to a situation where people largely use it to post spam or off-topic material, the technological sophistication needed to access it has currently reduced the risk of this happening. A few commentators have compared it to secured active directory technology due to the sophistication needed to work with it.

Users who’d prefer to not have to employ these features have instead opted to post content to services that are only accessible through Tor Project relays. While adversaries could theoretically de-anonymize users by taking advantage of 0-day exploits, the risk of this is relatively low and a majority of Tor participants don’t have to concern themselves with that as long as they’re operating from behind a secured Unix networking stac

Though it might seem like a lot of work for those who don’t normally want to mess around with socket addresses and port numbers, the fact that people are finding new ways to communicate might very well save the original dream the World Wide Web’s creators had.