How To Fight Deplatforming: Decentralize
Does America need a Reality Czar? That was New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose’s suggestion for how the Biden administration could help solve the so-called “reality crisis” facing the country.
The chaotic events of the January 6 Capitol riots marked the beginning of a new era of online content moderation. Not only did every major social media company kick Trump off their platforms, but Amazon Web Services, which owns about a third of the global cloud storage market, evicted the Twitter competitor Parler, and Apple and Google removed it from their app stores. Parler, which had signed on more than 13 million users, announced its relaunch on February 16.
Both Democrats and Republicans want Washington to have more influence over how big tech companies operate. There is a bipartisan push to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, known as the internet’s First Amendment. Repealing Section 230 would give the government more power to hold social media companies liable for the content that appears on their platforms.
President Biden has said he supports repealing Section 230. During an interview with then-candidate Biden, The New York Times’s editorial board called the regulation foundational to the modern internet. Biden responded, “That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked.”
But the great deplatforming of 2021 has also energized the movement to build a new, radically decentralized internet that would allow users to escape whatever form the Reality Czar takes. Many of the projects in this space are trying different approaches to solving the same set of problems, such as how to give individuals control over their own digital identities, and how to store data in the cloud so that it can’t be controlled or accessed by a large company subject to political pressure from the state.
Muneeb Ali is the CEO of Stacks, which has garnered some major backing for its effort to build a new computing platform that could become the foundation for a new decentralized internet.
“Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on with certain political figures getting banned on social media platforms, that is not the point,” said Ali. “The point is no one should have that type of power.”
Stacks is one of several startups that have devised a way for internet users to own their own digital identities. Today, Twitter, Facebook, and Google own and control user accounts on their platforms, which, as the tech giants have demonstrated, they can suspend or revoke at any time. With Stacks, Ali and his team are hoping to make it possible for users to take control of their own identities by storing them, not on the proprietary computing platforms of big tech, but on a public database that’s shared and maintained by people all over the world—the same one that’s used by the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, known as the blockchain. The idea grew out of Ali’s computer science dissertation at Princeton University.
Just as no central entity can stop a Bitcoin transaction, no central entity can revoke a participant’s account, or change the rules of the game if it is stored on the Bitcoin blockchain.
“People feel really frustrated when Facebook changes the privacy terms on them,” said Ali. “We saw how Robin hood halted trading for certain stocks, right? It’s the same problem. It’s just manifesting in different ways…It’s really a battle for making sure that the rules are the same for everyone. And they cannot be changed by a handful of people.”
Google’s motto was once “Don’t Be Evil,” which it later dropped. Ali said that the idea behind Stacks is to make it so that we don’t have to trust the good intentions of fallible humans. Instead, we can trust the same mathematical t
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