To Beat Online Censorship, We Need Anonymous Payments

Online censorship and surveillance will persist as long as local fiat currencies are the only way to pay for telecommunication services.

By Richard MyersLayer 2
Jul 29, 2020 at 8:34 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 14, 2021 at 9:37 a.m. UTC
By Richard MyersLayer 2
Jul 29, 2020 at 8:34 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 14, 2021 at 9:37 a.m. UTC

Richard Myers is a decentralized applications engineer at goTenna's Global Mesh Labs initiative, and previously a co-founder of Bytabit AB.

Online censorship and surveillance will persist as long as local fiat currencies are the only way to pay for telecommunication services.

The risk of internet censorship and surveillance is a growing concern in many parts of the world. NetBlocks, a digital rights advocacy group, frequently detects both total and partial internet shutdowns caused by overt censorship, natural disasters and technical mishaps. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has found domestic communication surveillance is common not just in authoritarian countries like China, but also in western democracies

The issue is an over-reliance on concentrated internet service providers (ISPs), which decide what communities receive internet access, how much to charge and whether to hand over personal information to authorities upon request.

Technologists have been looking to the stars to solve the issue of communications suppression. Satellite internet systems like Iridium Go are one way to reach off-grid communities or bypass local censorship, but they are not affordable for most. New low-earth-orbit satellite systems like Starlink promise to lower costs and increase internet access, but require massive investments in proprietary satellites and for consumers to purchase expensive receiver equipment. 

Meanwhile, cheaper options like the Iranian Toosheh (Knapsack), which repurposes existing satellite TV receivers, is subject to content gatekeeping by the system’s operators and investors. 

The most promising platform to date is Blockstream’s Blocksat Transmission service, which allows anyone on the internet to uplink data to be broadcast alongside the startup’s dedicated Bitcoin network data feed. (Full disclosure: GoTenna and Blockstream have collaborated on the open source txtenna-python project.)

To be truly censorship resistant, internet publishers must be able to accept anonymous payments from their subscribers and advertisers.

Blockstream, founded by veteran cryptographer Adam Back, solves an important problem of how to allocate scarce download bandwidth by requiring uploaders to bid for space in their broadcast on a per-byte basis. More important, content uploaders pay using the Bitcoin Lightning network without revealing their identity or even that the destination of their payment is Blockstream.

This solution reveals an important insight about how censorship can be banished. As long as telecommunications tools are being paid for in fiat, they will never be free from governmental or corporate repression. 

To be truly censorship resistant, internet publishers must be able to accept anonymous payments from their subscribers and advertisers. Take Backpage as an example. In 2015, a letter sent by the Cook County [Illinois] Sheriff was sufficient for all three major credit card companies to drop Backpage, a marketplace largely for sex ads, as a customer. 

Global internet providers like Blockstream or Starlink will be subject to similar censorship from payment providers in every one of the jurisdictions they serve. They will also undoubtedly receive requests to reveal the identity of their customers from some jurisdictions, many without strong human rights protections. Having this information puts them at risk of being legally compelled to reveal it, accidentally leaking it or having it taken covertly

The Lightning Network preempts this risk by enabling private messaging and as well as private peer-to-peer payments. Applications such as Whatsat and Juggernaut demonstrate how Lightning can be used for private, onion-routed, peer-to-peer communication, similar to the Tor network. But, unlike Tor, each relay that helps to successfully forward a message also receives a bitcoin micropayment. 

As the Lightning network grows it will become increasingly possible to route more than simple messages through its nodes. Like Tor, any arbitrary protocol could be routed over encrypted channels between Lightning nodes. Gateways to the internet, called exit relays on Tor, could charge higher routing fees to offset their higher bandwidth and hosting costs. 

Lightning mile

Conventional telecommunication companies are responsible for building out the relay and backhaul infrastructure of their network in exchange for the right to bill for access. They often fail to do so. Internet access provided by traditional telecoms to last-mile communities is often expensive, limited and/or unreliable. Further, rural last-mile communities often have lower-speed data than cities and high metered rates relative to income.

Lightning nodes that specialize in providing connectivity in off-grid or last-mile locations could supply this market by charging routing fees based on demand. High-altitude balloons, cubesats, community WiFi networks, radio broadcasters and mesh relays are some communication technologies that can now be incentivized with Lightning micropayments. Using Lightning payments would allow any two devices within range of each other to negotiate a payment in exchange for data delivery. 

Radio spectrum is currently auctioned off for the exclusive use of large telecom companies to provide communication services to residents in particular regions. More spectrum should be allocated for residents, small businesses and existing telecoms to cooperatively compete to provide communication services. Lightning is an important protocol for enabling more competition and communication networks that are more ubiquitous, resilient, private and affordable.

I disagree with J.P. Koning that Bitcoin, like ham radio, will remain a clunky niche hobby destined to be only occasionally useful during disasters – financial ones in the case of Bitcoin. Lightning can be used to unlock consumer facing telecom and banking solutions in places not well served by both centralized financial and telecom networks. Most of the world is already suffering from weak monetary institutions and communication infrastructure and would benefit from leap-frogging these legacy centralized systems for both

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