Censorship is in its purest form is the suppression of a given activity. Blockchains are associated with immutability, the idea that once data is placed on the blockchain it cannot be altered.
It is also a common perception that anyone can store data on a blockchain without permission. These two factors lead people to believe that blockchains are resistant to censorship.
With the rise of cryptocurrencies and their underlying blockchains, people have had the opportunity to conduct transactions without any interference from the established powers that be.
A case in point is the 2010 withdrawal of services from Wikileaks by Visa and Mastercard. Wikileaks has since resorted to using cryptocurrency for gathering donations and, as recently as April 2019, the site has used cryptocurrency to raise funds. However, while on the surface it may appear that blockchain cannot be censored, the reality is not so straightforward.
Why Censorship Resistance Matters
When a few players dominate a market, they have the ability to allow or disallow certain activities. For example, in the international remittance market, Western Union, UAE Exchange and Moneygram dominate the scene.
In fact, Western Union is so large that its nearest competitor, UAE Exchange, handles only half the volume it does. This gives one company tremendous power over who can do what and send how much to where. It also gives governments an easy way to decide what regulations should be in place.
Similar stories exist elsewhere as well. Just six corporations control 90% of the media in the United States. These include the likes of GE, News Corp, Disney etc. So when it comes to the number of people that control the news for 327 million Americans, it is just over 200 executives. The dawning era of decentralisation presents an opportunity to change this concentration of control.
In China, blockchain was recently used by #MeToo activists to record their stories after reportedly being censored by the government and various web platforms. Yue Xin, a student of Pekin University, had her open letter censored but her supporters used the Ethereum blockchain technology to keep it accessible.
“For those of us lucky enough to be born in stable Western democracies, the necessity of censorship-resistant networks is not always obvious”
Binary District Journal spoke with Alex Tapscott, Co-Author of The Blockchain Revolution, about the importance of resisting censorship and the technology available to do so.
“For those of us lucky enough to be born in stable Western democracies, the necessity of censorship-resistant networks is not always obvious,” he says.
“Not everyone is so fortunate, though, and the ability to transact and communicate on truly censorship-free platforms is a fundamental challenge to despotic regimes. We’ve seen that exercised most recently in Venezuela.”
Miners and Soft Censorship
The first issue around the censorship of blockchain is who gets to use the tech. In theory, anyone can but in practice, miners can act as gatekeepers.
Vitalik Buterin addressed the issue in his 2015 blog The Problem of Censorship. “Although lots of work has been done in cryptoeconomics in order to ensure that blockchains continue pumping out new blocks, and particularly to prevent blocks from being reverted,” he writes, “substantially less attention has been put on the problem of ensuring that transactions that people want to put into the blockchain will actually get in, even if ‘the powers that be’, at least on that particular blockchain, would prefer otherwise.”
In the case of certain blockchains, miners can discriminate against low fee-paying transactions in what is described by some as ‘soft censorship’. To what extent is this actual censorship? Are miners truly the gatekeepers of the blockchain?
We spoke with Oleg Khovayko, CTO of Emercoin. “While low fees can be a reason for [miners] to remove a transaction from a mempool - each miner makes that decision independently - this is not censorship.” We can say, then, that low payment or underpayment can’t be truly equated with censorship.
Taking a different point of view, Jashon Sheman, Project Manager at Bitcoin.com says, “We have already seen that blockchains can be susceptible to censorship, with a primary example being the failure to scale the BTC network, crippling its use case as money. People are currently having their transactions censored through high fees, causing a disincentive to use the network.”
Different people see barriers to entry differently - while some would like to think of it as an exercise in democracy, others think such economic ‘blockade’ is tantamount to censorship.
“While low fees can be a reason for [miners] to remove a transaction from a mempool - each miner makes that decision independently - this is not censorship.”
We asked Alex whether a technique called feather forking could constitute censorship. “It’s entirely possible but seems unlikely for any adequately decentralised network,” he says.
“The idea is that a miner on a blockchain network might refuse to validate blocks of transactions involving particular users, subtly ‘black-listing’ that participant. The problem lies in identifying someone as the actor you’d like to isolate and convincing a critical mass of other miners in the network to participate in that sort of isolation. Neither of those are particularly easy feats.”
Censorship Through Brute Majority
Hypothetically speaking, if a group of miners were to control more than 50% of the mining hash rate, they would be in a position to control transactions between all users, reverse transactions or even deny transactions to certain users.
However, such a scenario would require either a collaboration between various parties or would come at a great cost in certain models.
Protection against censorship can be effective if either the cost of censorship is prohibitively high or if it becomes difficult to censor specific things without censoring ‘absolutely everything’, according to Buterin. He proposes that one of the ways to make censorship costly is to penalise everyone for anyone’s non-participation.
There is, also, another way of looking at this issue entirely. Miners, in this case, are essentially voting. If a majority is formed and a consensus emerges within this majority, then certain actions can be taken to the detriment of the minority.
Ultimately, it is up to the developers to choose the models they evolve to make blockchain technology resistant to censorship.
Blockchain Can Sidestep Censorship
In January, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) published new regulations regarding blockchain technology. The rules came into effect as of February 15, 2019. The CAC now requires blockchain service providers to register their activity as early as 10 working days into their product going live.
Blockchain service providers are prohibited from disseminating information that has been classified as illegal by the Chinese authorities.
Does this mean that censorship can be exercised by the Chinese government over the blockchain providers that are allowed to operate within the country? That is possible and highly realistic.
However, at the same time, it is also true that Chinese citizens have been circumventing the Great Firewall of China since it was introduced, using technologies like VPNs.
Oleg agrees that Chinese citizens may be able to still push transactions through in a secure way through VPN. “Just imagine - in the p2p network there are a million ways to push a transaction,” he says. “And a firewall must block all of them. As a result, this firewall will be full of holes, inefficient.”
So, in practice, it is possible for a person in China to access prohibited content. If the Chinese government mandates that recording information on all blockchain users is mandatory, though, then with a slight majority of 51% of miners a public blockchain can be made compliant to the will of Chinese censors.
The Freedom to Transact is Paramount
Different people have a different understanding of what censorship of the blockchain implies - it is a matter of perception. It would also be fair to say that there are genuine threats to the freedom of transactions on blockchain networks around the world. The freedom to make transactions free of oversight may represent an ideal for some and a threat to the existence of the state to another.
“On the whole, a blockchain that follows certain design principles is extremely resistant to censorship”
However, as far as technology is concerned there is some agreement that blockchains have some inherent protections and safeguards against censorship. “On the whole, a blockchain that follows certain design principles is extremely resistant to censorship,” Alex says.
“This is particularly true of public, permissionless blockchains like Bitcoin. Permissioned blockchains have a certain degree of ‘gatekeeping’ in terms of who is able to participate as a node in the network.”
Jason Sherman wants the scalability of Bitcoin to be addressed as a means of creating a currency that people can use freely without government interference.
“Governance leads to an unusable blockchain. Limiting/reducing the block size and creating a fee-based market is one way we are seeing of limiting the use of blockchain and a vulnerability that we have seen. Allowing Bitcoin to scale as fast as possible to allow it to be used as global money would be the best way to support this.”
Online censorship in China is accepted as being the most extensive in the world. The government has even banned sites like Wikipedia in its effort to control exactly what it is its citizens are consuming. Sometimes, though, major events are too big to keep a hold on. Protests in Hong Kong over new extradition laws - which the organisers say attracted more than a million protestors - has sparked interest in China and people are finding ways of discussing the completely state-embargoed political event online.
One is on Weibo, which saw Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global TImes, post two long explanations of the protest. Most of the discussions are either shut down by the Great Firewall or are simply deleted, with entire accounts getting suspended in some cases. Hu’s posts paint the event in a pro-Beijing manner but have had the unintended consequence of alerting previously ignorant people to the protest in the first instance. Eager to find out more, people who see Hu’s posts will use VPN and Google to find out more.
It’s an interesting case study of censorship given that some have expressed anger over the lack of information about the protest in the mainland’s news outlets. Either information needs to be completely suppressed (almost impossible in the digital age despite how extensive the firewall may be) or it needs to be shared openly. Any other course of action risks inciting the population, which China’s handling of the protest seems to have done if the Weibo comments on Hu’s posts are anything to go by.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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