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Free Speech on the Blockchain

in Editor's Picks/Politics by

We ran a piece previously on the Blockchain’s Pandora’s Box which explained how certain changes are coming that, whether we wish for them or not, are inevitable because of the Blockchain’s inherent immutability.

One glaring omission from that piece was Free Speech. There are, in essence, two dominant schools of thought on the subject – the first which states that all expressed ideas, whether written or spoken, should not be subjected to any kind of censorship; the second which states that some forms of expression should indeed be subject to some kind of curation.

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In the case of the latter, this generally manifests itself – at least within liberal democracies – as laws which seek (or claim to seek) restrictions on forms of expression which incite hatred or violence. Of course, this raises the subject of who decides what is permissible or not, and that is where the issue gets somewhat thorny.

Leaving aside one or two caveats, unrestricted expression has now essentially won out

That was, in a nutshell, where things stood on the question of “Should we have free speech?” – the emergence of the Blockchain removes the “Should” entirely from the equation. We now have a new technology which provides the ability – for the first time in human history – to create immutable, transparent, public records going forward. And this means that the first school of thought – total and unrestricted expression – wins out.

Once content is submitted to the blockchain – an article, a podcast or a video, for example – it stays there regardless of whether there exists any law or unhappy soul which decrees that it should not be so.

Whatever our prior thoughts were on whether we should provide platforms for absolute free speech, we will now have to accept going forward that the technology has resolved that particular question on our behalf – but also recognise that this raises new problems going forward.


One problem with free speech, of course, is that it is open to abuse. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” American sociologist and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. Absolute free speech does not preclude, naturally, people who talk absolute complete nonsense – and when nonsense goes on the blockchain, it stays there.

So if we are going to commit content to the blockchain, can we find a mechanism to ensure that what is written to the blockchain is not complete nonsense? It is this specific problem that a project known as the Decentralised News Network (DNN) is seeking to address. Selling itself as a platform for non-censored news content, the team behind the project also want to make sure that it does not become subject to abuse or spam, and so has decided to introduce a new layer within its blockchain-based news economy: curation.

Curation, of course, raises its own problems because it essentially leaves it to the individual to judge whether a statement, a comment or source can be classified as credible.

It is for this reason that DNN has opted for a three-pronged approach to dealing with the issue of trust: firstly, it is not one individual that will be entrusted with judging upon the veracity or otherwise of the contents of a submitted piece – there will be a number of judges (seven, in fact). Secondly, these seven judges are chosen anonymously, remain anonymous to each other, and it is their aggregate judgement which forms the basis of accepting or rejecting a piece which has been submitted for publication. Thirdly, the judges are subjected to reputation scores.

Even here a purist may argue that the approach is not foolproof. It does, on the other hand, appear to represent a vastly superior approach to existing news output models for which almost no such curation exists – aside from that of an individual editor who, in all likeliness, is much too overworked and underpaid to be trusted as a flawless arbitrator at all times.

Blockchain: a Law Unto Itself

What does this all imply for the long-term? In countries such as the UK – whose libel laws effectively act as a gag on free speech in its ‘purest form’ – there is a number of fall-outs.

Firstly, a judge may wish to seek an injunction against publication but, in a blockchain context, this will no longer be the Sword of Damocles that it currently is: you can shut down a news organisation but you simply won’t be able to silence a determined publisher supported by a community-organised, blockchain-based news platform.

Over the long-term, then, UK law is likely to drift away from its current focus on public interest as the prime criterium for determining whether certain material can be published. In its place, we may just see  a new, blockchain-imposed focus on news content accuracy instead.

Whilst this is all still nothing more than speculation, the point nonetheless stands that future news content – and the freedom of speech which underpins it – are about to go through a paradigm shift. And once again, whether the longer term benefits will be positive or negative on aggregate remains anyone’s guess.