At a time of a global pandemic, getting information free from the rose-tinted glasses of authoritarian regimes is more crucial than ever. But Freedom House, a non-profit looking at free expression around the world, found that in a study of 65 countries in 2019, a stunning 33 saw declines in internet freedom. Many internet freedom advocates have argued over the years that the solution to this censorship is to decentralize the internet. A software company called Unstoppable Domains is working on just that, and it announced on Monday it's partnering with the web browser Opera to get the project rolling.
Unstoppable Domains is building domain names on the blockchain, and its .crypto web addresses allow people to create websites that can only be taken down by their creator. By partnering with Opera, over 80 million people will now have access to these decentralized websites.
Here's how it works: The website creator is the key holder for the domain, and the domain's content is shared across a network of computers. If Unstoppable Domains wanted to take down your website, it can't, because only you can do that. You can also put the website up and throw away the key so no one can ever take it down.
"No one can take it down."
Brad Kam, co-founder of Unstoppable Domains, tells Inverse that there are still ways authoritarian governments could block access to a .crypto website, but they won't be able to take those websites down.
"We're not building a decentralized internet service provider," Kam says. "If somebody is in China, the Chinese internet service provider could still say you can't go to this .crypto website, but the difference is, they can't take it down. No one can take it down."
One of the ways China censors websites is by scanning the content of websites to look for keywords that are related to banned speech. If the website appears to have content the government sees as radical or unacceptable, it can block access to that website. Kam says there is a way you could get around that with a .crypto website, though.
"It is theoretically possible to have an encrypted website where access is only given to specific domain holders," Kam says. "So I could whitelist a website and say, 'This content is encrypted. The only way to decrypt it is to be one of these 1,000 domain holders or Ethereum wallets or whatever.' If you do that, then it's not callable. The content is not callable. You'd have to know it by the domain, and the domain could update."
While Freedom House calls China the world's worst abuser of the Internet, censorship presents itself all over the globe. Kam pointed to an example of Catalonian protesters having their website taken down at the request of the Spanish government last year as one of the reasons a decentralized internet is needed. Microsoft was also forced to block a Catalan protest app that was being hosted on GitHub, which it owns.
"The thing I think that is really going to get people going is when a politically objectionable website can't be taken down," Kam says. "I think we saw with that Catalonian protest stuff that the Spanish government was able to force American tech companies to pursue censorship against what you and I would probably consider to be legitimate speech, and the tech companies had to comply. Here, any court order we received we would not be able to comply with because technically it's impossible."
Kam says his company wants to help dissidents in China and beyond get on this network to help fight censorship and decentralize the internet. He says people will need to be careful, though, because they can still be arrested even if their website can't be taken down. It might be best to have the website launched outside the country and used within it.
"Everybody's doing the same thing...that's basically what's causing the rise of global authoritarianism."
If there are already websites that you want to protect that aren't on the .crypto network, you can create a copy of them that has the .crypto address so they can't be taken down and will still run perfectly fine if the original website is taken down. Kam says they already have over 200,000 domains registered and over 400 websites up. Beyond maintaining power, Kam says authoritarian governments are censoring content for financial reasons.
"Everybody's doing the same thing, which is they have realized that—it's kind of like startups—they've realized that, 'If I get a massive data set, and I control these points of failure on the internet, I can get super rich or super powerful so why not do that?' That's basically what's causing the rise of global authoritarianism."
If a country like China or Spain wants to block you from using a popular app or platform and put out its own state-sponsored version, it could see major financial benefits to doing that. That helps people in the government make more money and more tightly control the populace.
It's not easy fighting government censorship, but this kind of decentralizing and utilization of the blockchain could help make it easier. It's always a cat and mouse game when it comes to fighting government censorship, and this seems to be one of the latest tools that can help dissidents get ahead of their oppressors.
The Inverse analysis
China has gotten very good at censoring its internet, but it seems there are always innovators working to get one step ahead of its censorship system. Russia is cutting off parts of its internet, but there will likely be some who figure out how to get around that. In the United States, it's often corporate censorship we're most worried about, but we should always be keeping an eye on how our own government is working to suppress dissenting viewpoints. Governments censor for a reason, and it's because they know if they can control what you say, they can control what you do.