When is a Private Company Not a Private Company? Part 2: Fighting Digital-Age Cronyism After Section 230
By Amanda Griffiths
In a previous post, I wrote about White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s recent revelation that the Biden Administration has “increased disinformation research and tracking within the surgeon general’s office” and is “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” I argued that this sort of state interference exemplifies the distinction between capitalism and cronyism. After defining both terms and giving an abbreviated history of how capitalism and cronyism have evolved in the U.S., I wrote that capitalism remains the best way to fight cronyism, but added that “because the modes of American cronyism have changed, so must our means of combatting them.” In this post, I’ll consider one of those means.
On the matter of Internet speech specifically, it’s time to stop looking to legislative policy as our primary protection against digital-age cronyism. Legislation can help legitimize a decentralized society; but first, society must decentralize legitimacy.
In other words, winning the war against state-sanctioned censorship online is not about repealing or reenforcing Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act. It is about making Section 230 obsolete.
Thinking beyond Section 230 is important, for one, because Section 230 itself has absolutely nothing to do with whether an Internet provider or platform chooses to host content. All that Section 230 does is exempt platforms from liability over the content they do host. It is neither the panacea nor the villain that many wish it to be.
More to the point, thinking beyond Section 230 is important because Republicans and Democrats have an unfortunate propensity to agree on the abstract necessity of greater regulation while disagreeing as to the rationale behind it. Currently, for example, Republicans are trying to emend Section 230 so that it “limit[s] the right of tech companies to exclude users based on their viewpoints,” and Democrats are rallying to remove Section 230 protections for social media sites that fail to censor “health misinformation”.
Even if Section 230 could somehow be used to compel platforms to host or censor content, however, one statute cannot possibly be citizens’ sole safeguard of digital expression. Too few libertarian-minded members exist in Congress to withstand the mounting bipartisan onslaught against “the twenty-six words that created the Internet.”
Fortunately, however, the twenty-six words that were necessary to maintain the integrity of the platform Internet may soon become superfluous with the advent of the blockchain-decentralized web, otherwise known as the distributed web. Whereas the platform Internet is powered by HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), the distributed or decentralized web is today powered by IPFS (InterPlanetary File System). Each uses a separate method of transacting and storing data that makes those data either more or less vulnerable to manipulation. These changes have to do with the mechanics of the request-response process, which occurs any time you send or receive information on the web.
Here’s an imperfect analogy: Any time you do anything on HTTP—from searching the web to streaming a video—imagine you’re making a call via a party-line or directory assistance. You put in a request to one entity, you wait to be connected to the person or information you’ve requested, and whether you get what you want is essentially up to whomever operates or curates the service. If an operator doesn’t want to or can’t connect you to someone, if there’s too much traffic, if either the operating line or that of the party you’re trying to reach is down, or if anything else goes wrong at any other point in the request-response process, the connection fails. If HTTP is like a party-line, IPFS is like a WiFi-connected smartphone.
If the party-line analogy didn’t work for you because your parents were born after 1955, compare HTTP to sending a money order (or trying to…), which is perhaps an even better example given the various costs and intermediaries involved. Although money orders take days (and days…), and the HTTP request-response process takes nanoseconds, the relative inefficiencies are similar, compared with IPFS (versus HTTP) or an instant-transfer technology like Monero (versus a money order).
Among HTTP’s other fallibilities, HTTP data are easy to censor or modify at multiple points in the request-response process. That means that if you’re looking for a post on Facebook that has since been memory-holed, it’s going to take some serious sleuthing before you can access the original file—if you manage to unearth it at all.
On an IPFS-powered website, conversely, modifications to an original file don’t overwrite the initial one. New versions are stored as entirely new files, allowing users to view the latest version of a page as well as prior ones. As the IPFS information site explains: “This means files stored on IPFS are resistant to tampering and censorship—any changes to a file don't overwrite the original, and common chunks across files can be reused in order to minimize storage costs.”
In Visions of Liberty—a multi-author series of essays sketching the political and social contours for a more libertarian society—Will Duffield elaborates: “a structurally decentralized internet would resist state regulation and the ever-shifting tides of public opinion by eliminating [censorship] chokepoints” and “replac[ing] capture-subject intermediaries” with universally accessible protocols, which “need not be owned by anyone and may be used by any two partners willing to adopt the same standards.”
Many have heard of IPFS before, and those who haven’t heard of IPFS have likely used similar technologies without realizing it. (If you’d like, you can watch IPFS originator Juan Benet explain the system here.) Practically speaking, the distributed web needn’t “look” any different from the platform web: the change comes in the way that bits of information are shared and stored. Just as blockchain data are encrypted and sealed such that they can be re-accessed in the event that one server is compromised or shut down—without end users knowing “where” those data are being held—the distributed web allows creators and developers to store bits of content, and back-ups thereof, across a theoretically infinite number of servers.
If you’re browsing the web, you can reach the IPFS network via the HTTP gateway. You can also host a site on the IPFS network; or, for the greatest ease and scope of access, you can install and run IPFS on your computer. In this case, your computer becomes both an IPFS client and an IPFS server. That allows you to share and store the files you select with anyone else on the IPFS network instantaneously. It’s like having a desktop version of all your social media apps rolled into one, only content creation and curation are entirely in your hands. There’s no cypherpunk wizardry or dark web voodoo required.
Mirror sites are among IPFS’ more basic functions. If you’ve ever tried to download a book or journal article without institutional access, you’ve probably visited an IPFS or other type of mirror site before. (Rumor has it that certain large university systems have such labyrinthine library search platforms that students find it easier to download research materials from mirror sites than to locate them on their library server.)
More than just a friend to frustrated academics, IPFS mirror sites have helped thwart state-sanctioned censorship before, too. When Spain’s Constitutional Court declared the Catalan independence referendum unconstitutional in 2017, it blocked access to many sites affiliated with the referendum, including sites providing information (sorry—misinformation) about how to vote. (Google, ever the voting rights champion, assisted the Court by voluntarily removing the “On Votar 1 Oct” app from its Play Store, preventing Catalan users from locating nearby polling places.) IPFS mirror sites quickly popped up, allowing users to access information (sorry—misinformation) about polling locations. (Tangentially, it might be worth reminding Google of its own complicity in suppressing Catalan votes the next time it tries to posture about election reform or voting rights in the United States.)
Similarly, between 2017 and 2020, the nation of Turkey blocked residents’ access to Wikipedia (too much “misinformation,” apparently). An IPFS mirror site was created, The Observer explains, “allow[ing] the same set of data to live in multiple places while still enabling browsers to find any one of them with only a single address.”
One assumes similar methods could be used to allow residents of Cuba, whose government has cut the island’s access to social media platforms in an effort to stop the dissemination of anti-Communist media and protest footage—undoubtedly “misinformation,” so far as the regime is concerned—the ability to share their stories with the world. Workarounds for posting to auto-refresh or interactive sites would likely rely on IPFS’ universal hosting capacity. Without connecting to social media, users running IPFS from their computers could upload footage, documentation, and other files to the global IPFS network. From there, others could subsequently clip and share the files across platform websites and other news media worldwide. Even if the “parent” computer or file was destroyed, the uploaded file would remain immutably preserved across countless cryptographic blocks.
Given the proliferation of the Internet of Things, or IoT—where just about any “smart” appliance can function as a communications router—the potential of mesh networks, made up of everyday household devices, can allow distributed web users and publishers virtually unlimited access to information and consumers from which they were previously barred: if one node is unable or unwilling to rout certain traffic or content, that traffic or content is automatically and seamlessly redirected through another node. “In the event of a denial-of-service attack, or the seizure of a server holding one copy of the file, IPFS will simply direct a searcher to another copy of the file… without compromising its ability to be discovered via search,” writes Duffield, rendering both formal and informal avenues of censorship defunct.
The best part? “Once these services are adopted widely, such regulation would become politically infeasible and practically unenforceable.”
Content curation remains possible on the decentralized web, of course. It’s just, well, decentralized: transparent and user-driven. In an entirely decentralized web ecosystem, plenty of users will undoubtedly outsource content curation to various clients and algorithms (including today’s search intermediaries, which will likely need to develop multiple curation options in order to remain competitive)—but if users ever become unsatisfied with the availability of information at their disposal, they can easily migrate to another curator, or develop their own algorithm (something that smart people assure me is easier than it sounds).
While “this style of moderation will not satisfy proponents of militant democracy concerned with their neighbors’ information consumption habits,” user-driven curation “will effectively address the concerns of everyday internet users,” Duffield says. At the same time, it will become easier than ever to hold individual bad actors accountable without catching unsuspecting users who just happen to use a “banned” word or phrase in the scrum.
Sounds promising, right? So—why aren’t more people and organizations using the distributed web?
In order to understand that, I recommend re-reading the last several paragraphs from the mindset of a federal official.
Like all societal and political change, the mass exodus to the distributed web will need to be initiated by individuals, not by legislation. To that end, the clarion call to migrate to the distributed web cannot rely solely on arguments about intellectual and creative freedom—especially when so many today feel threatened by ideas foreign or disagreeable to them. Proponents of the distributed web also need to emphasize its superior environmental sustainability, ease of use, cost efficiency (one study finds that, compared with YouTube, a peer-to-peer video delivery network could “result in bandwidth saving up to 60%”), antifragility, increased coverage capacity (the equity factor), and superior privacy and security. The first thing individuals can do to migrate to the distributed web is start using, and (for developers) writing programs on, the distributed web.
Although not strictly necessary, subsequent legislative reforms—which can only follow, not preempt, societal pressure for decentralization—could help hasten and scale this trend. It would be misguided to take an overly rigid stance toward all government-based reforms. It is one thing for state actors to covertly encourage or coerce corporations to impose certain limitations on themselves and their consumers (such as the United States government “flagging misinformation” on Facebook’s behalf, or the Chinese government working with Google—yes, Google again—to censor search results). It is quite another to adjust policies so that it becomes easier and more attractive for organizations to exercise greater operational freedom themselves, and to extend greater creative freedom to their users.
Any government-based incentives to migrate to the distributed web will need to be non-punitive, come at no cost to taxpayers, and aim at permanent decentralization. (These stipulations rule out federal grants and subsidies.) Nor can incentives favor the adoption of IPFS over another hypothetical distributed web concept. Incentives will need to target migration to the distributed web itself, not the transition to a particular distributed web system. Based on the energy and bandwidth savings potentiated by the distributed web, it seems feasible that lawmakers could be moved to sponsor tax rebates for distributed web developers, hosts, and other clients—so long as the advantages of the distributed web were already prominent in public discourse, and their adoption a salient social cause.
These incentives have as their sole aim irrevocable decentralization. They are not about rewarding organizations and web users for censoring or not censoring their content as directed. They are about rewarding organizations and users who choose to make state-orchestrated censorship impossible. The solution to digital-age cronyism is digital-age capitalism: granting individuals greater—and permanent—sovereignty in the pursuit and the expression of information.