By: Spandana Singh
Earlier this month, thousands of people in Moscow came together to protest a government block on Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app. In addition, over the past few months, governments around the world, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, have blocked access to a number of websites and platforms, sparking outcry over restrictions on online freedom of speech and expression. Traditionally, activists, journalists and censored individuals used digital anti-censorship tools such as Telegram or Signal, to circumvent such restrictions. However, recent industry changes have made this more difficult, prompting civil society and activists to ask: What can fill this gap? As demonstrated by activists in China over the past month, emerging technologies such as blockchain may hold the solution.
In early April, eight students at China’s prestigious Peking University filed a freedom of information request for the school’s official records on Gao Yan, a student who had been sexually assaulted by her professor two decades ago, and who had subsequently committed suicide in 1998. The exposition of Yan’s case and the university’s role in covering it up sparked outcry, and hundreds across the country called on the university and government to do more to prevent sexual assault and harassment. In response, censors cracked down on online discussions of the issue. They also swiftly removed an open letter penned by Yue Xin, one of the students who had submitted the freedom of information request. Xin’s letter detailed the intimidation and coercion she had faced from the school and authorities following the submission of the request and highlighted the restrictive nature of speech in China both online and offline.
Despite censorship attempts, a supporter of the movement in China was able to circumvent speech restrictions by embedding Xin’s letter into the tamper-proof Ethereum blockchain. Blockchain is an open-source, public, distributed computing technology, which is the basis of the well-known cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Ethereum is a public blockchain that hosts the cryptocurrency Ether. The activist (anonymous on Ethereum) sent themselves zero Ether on the platform, and embedded the text of Xin’s open letter in their transaction’s metadata. Given that transactions on blockchain are irreversible, transaction information cannot be altered, and transactions generate distributed copies of themselves within the network, which ensured that Xin’s letter would be permanently documented and accessible in the public domain. In response, students from universities across the country similarly embedded messages in their transaction descriptions, therefore enabling unrestricted and free conversation on the issue.
The emergence of this innovation in tools available to censored communities comes at a critical time. Last month, a security update to Google and Amazon’s network architectures ended a popular practice known as “domain fronting.” Domain fronting was made possible by a “quirk” in a platform’s software stack which enabled external services and tools to disguise their traffic as the traffic of a larger website, such as Google. Because governments are typically reluctant to block these larger platforms, smaller anti-censorship platforms were able to circumvent state or national-level blocks on their services by disguising their operations as those of larger companies. However, major platforms such as Google decided to put an end to this unintended feature as it could also be used to hide malicious activity and therefore posed a security concern to these companies.
Although the security concerns are understandable, domain fronting was a practice that many anti-censorship tools and platforms such as Tor, GreatFire and Signal had previously used. It enabled their users, who include activists, journalists and human rights defenders, to circumvent barriers to accessing the open internet and exercising free speech around the world. The emergence of a potential blockchain solution in this space is timely and much needed to fill the void left by the halting of domain fronting.
It is important to recognize that the use of blockchain in this context is still in a developing stage, and as a result, its applications to digital freedom of speech and information concerns are not perfect. For example, given that blockchain is not commonly used or understood as a communications or digital rights service, the student protest letter in China did not garner the same level of virality that it would likely have achieved had it been permitted to remain on social media. In addition, after the letter was embedded in the Ethereum blockchain, popular Chinese messaging app, WeChat, prevented users from accessing the blockchain transaction page on etherscan.io, and therefore hindered access to the letter and its responses. This is a challenge that free speech activists using blockchain will need to troubleshoot going forward, in order to amplify their voices at a greater scale and legitimize the use of blockchain as a censorship circumvention tool. In addition, given that the development and use of anti-censorship tools typically occur in a cat-and-mouse manner between governments and censored individuals and communities, this application of blockchain will need to continuously adapt and evolve if it is to become a long-term and complementary solution within the larger anti-censorship and circumvention landscape. Furthermore, as with all early-stage applications of emerging technologies, an increase in similar use cases as well as better and more decentralized approaches to educating users on this application of blockchain will help mainstream such deployments of these tools.
As internet censorship and disruptions continue to increase globally and as recent and conventional tools used to circumvent restrictions on speech come under threat, emerging technologies such as blockchain have the potential to provide new mechanisms for amplifying the voices of digital rights and freedom activists. It will take continued adaptation in the face of evolving threats, greater education, and a number of successful use cases to overcome existing hurdles before the application of this technology is common. Nonetheless, given the success activists in the Peking University case in China had, this is an important space to watch and build on going forward.
Spandana Singh graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in International Development and Media, with a focus on technology. She previously served as a Public Policy Fellow at Twitter in San Francisco and is also currently a Millennial Public Policy Fellow on the Open Technology Institute team at New America.