Preston Byrne, a columnist for CoinDesk’s Opinion section, is a partner in Anderson Kill’s Technology, Media and Distributed Systems Group. He advises software, internet and fintech companies. His biweekly column, “Not Legal Advice,” is a roundup of pertinent legal topics in the crypto space. It is most definitely not legal advice.
Irrespective of what “side” one takes in the many-front culture war raging on keyboards at the moment, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a “reign of terror” vibe is sweeping the Western world. This is a continuation of a theme familiar to anyone who has followed the internet culture wars of the last few years. Anyone who has followed GamerGate, or the mass de-platforming of Alex Jones and Live Action, or the YouTube AdPocalypse, or the partisan advertiser boycotts of Breitbart and Fox News, or the rollout of social credit scoring in China, and many, many more individual cases, will be familiar with the battlefield and the terminology.
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This fight is framed as a ferocious struggle for “control” of the internet and society. Only now, rather than manning barricades and mobilizing minutemen, we sit at our computers screaming ferociously into the void where everyone loses precious time and energy. Everyone, that is, except online political grifters and social media companies, the latter of which use algorithmically driven fury to compete for eyeballs and a dwindling pool of advertising dollars.
Those who have not been paying attention may have difficulty figuring out exactly what the landscape looks like or how they need to adjust. “Censorship” is a spectrum of behaviors meant to suppress ideas by a range of players. Historically, this meant the repression of ideas at the hands of either state or quasi-state, often ecclesiastical, actors. Socrates was killed for encouraging young people to ask uncomfortable questions. Galileo spent the last days of his life under house arrest for daring to question the accepted wisdom that the Earth did not revolve around the sun. William Prynne was branded by the Star Chamber for daring to utter seditious libels in England. And so it went.
The legal system of the United States was designed, in part, to render forever impossible such prosecutions. It is why our First Amendment exists and has been interpreted by our courts to protect a wide range of speech, including advocacy of violent insurrection, from state interference.
The First Amendment worked well, for a time. With the advent of the internet, publishers were granted broad immunities from liability for user-generated content under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, presumably with the goal of ensuring that information flowed freely online.
In Western democracies, groups wielding political power are usually found in three different forms. The first is the state, for obvious and longstanding reasons. The second are corporations, for equally obvious and longstanding reasons. The third is the mob.
The mob used to be a fairly short-term phenomenon. Social media changes this. Its power to create and share is equaled only by its immense capacity to destroy. Balaji Srinivasan refers to this phenomenon as a “Rage Epidemic” where “mind viruses” burn through the digital hordes, directing their victims towards their hapless targets in an exponential fashion until the target either capitulates, is banned or suspended from a platform, or dies/is destroyed. Whether it be buildings in American cities, statues of historical figures including Gandhi and Lincoln being defaced in central London, or the summary termination of star soccer player Aleksandar Katai by the L.A. Galaxy club for the impertinent opinions of his wife, the mob is selecting its targets, broadcasting those targets and coordinating attacks on those targets through the use of social media.
Combined with the fecklessness of corporations and (in most cases) lack of strong civil rights protections afforded by the American state, mobs on social media have the capacity to hijack our societies and coordinate themselves to direct the energies of these larger entities onto individual citizens one-by-one based on the adoption of mainstream political views that a given mob opposes. Candace Owens was booted from GoFundMe last week; an advertiser boycott is being organized against Tucker Carlson as I write this article (June 9). I refer to the interaction between these three sources of censorship as the “tripartite model of internet censorship,” detailed in the chart above.
Today’s digital mobs tend to have one set of beliefs. If history is a guide, there is every reason to believe that tomorrow’s digital mobs might have other, more evil but nonetheless widely accepted, beliefs. Mobs are the antithesis of due process and careful deliberation. Mobs are not good, no matter who is in them.
With this as our background, I am often asked what role I believe Bitcoin will fulfill in our future. Some people say it is digital cash. Others say digital land. Still others say digital gold.
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I say Bitcoin is digital no-fucks-given.
The infusion of politics into everyday life – the requirement for every company to take a partisan stance on every issue – is set to become more commonplace, and not less. This is a business distraction of immense proportions. It will likely soon become impossible to post anything controversial online under one’s own name. It may become difficult for controversial political figures to transact financially under their own names. As platform and content bans increase, seemingly daily, by November it may become difficult to find business and communications systems that do not have some kind of ongoing ideological purity monitoring that is a prerequisite to continued use.
In a world where everyone is taking sides, it’s important to remember that each of us has only one life. We don’t owe anyone our allegiance, attention or time. In the United States, nobody is legally entitled to draw adverse inferences from silence; the same is true politically. There’s nothing wrong with avoiding the dystopian digital hellscape of the culture wars. It is perfectly fine, even healthy, to avoid the fighting and pursue only what matters to you.
Making the internet safe for individuals again, in my view, is the most compelling use case for Bitcoin and every other cryptographic method or technology. Companies that build politics-free solutions will be the future of the internet. Not because such products have the right opinions about their users, but because they have no opinions at all.