Web3’s killer app is human rights

There are a number of governments around the world that are actively trying to censor, control, and generally domesticate the Internet. In their recent joint communiqué, China and Russia defended a sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet, repeating a theme many of us who have worked on Internet governance have heard for decades. These governments and others want to retain and expand their ability to monitor and censor online activity in order to help them maintain a firm grip on power.

Yet Internet technology isn’t stagnant, and web3 provides some new possibilities. Seeing through the token-fueled frenzies and collectible ape jpegs, web3 technology has important properties of global significance. If we play our cards right, web3 could normalize free speech everywhere on the planet, including in the countries that need it the most.

Gunning for the open Internet

I got my start in technology policy exposing the most concerted effort to make the Internet more convenient for authoritarian regimes, the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunication. At the WCIT (“the wicket”), these governments put forward treaty provisions that would have brought Internet naming and numbering under intergovernmental control.

Essentially, what these regimes wanted was to make the Internet more like the international telephone system. With phones, each country has its own separate network, closely regulated by the government, and there is a special prefix you have to dial to connect internationally. Before the Internet, you could access another country’s telecommunications networks only through a narrow funnel, and countries imposed charges on inbound calls both as a revenue source and as a way of keeping the peasants isolated and powerless.

The Internet changed the balance of power. A borderless world of information was overlaid on our traditional political boundaries. Ideas, including pro-democracy ones, spread. The precise role of the Internet in movements like the Arab Spring is still much debated, but it’s clear that the authoritarian regimes under protest blamed the Internet—they instituted nationwide Internet shutdowns to try to quell the demonstrations. Some say that the shutdowns pushed more people onto the street, at first, if nothing else, to find out what was going on. By 2012, governments in Russia, China, the Middle East, and elsewhere had had enough—they wanted the Internet to be brought under the control of nation-states.

The gambit at the WCIT failed. Through public exposure, hard diplomatic work, and a bit of luck when some governments overplayed their hands, the worst provisions were removed from the treaty text and most democratic countries refused to sign the resulting agreement. Although 89 governments did sign the treaty, only 9 have fully ratified it, and it only governs communications between those 9 countries. We escaped. But it was close. It could have gone the other way.

Yet failure settled nothing. Unable to tame the Internet as easily as they did the phone system, authoritarian regimes doubled down on disinformation, surveillance, and censorship. They also increased their participation in standards bodies.

Within ICANN, the nonprofit organization that administers the root level of the Internet’s domain name system, authoritarian governments have been active in the Governmental Advisory Committee, which goes by the delightful acronym of the GAC (“the gack”). The GAC is essentially a mini-UN within ICANN, operating on standard intergovernmental procedures. As part of the 2016 reorganization of the bylaws, the GAC received a privileged status within ICANN. Under section 12.2(a)(x) of the ICANN bylaws, GAC “advice” to the ICANN board can only be rejected by a supermajority of the board.

Outside of ICANN, governments like China and Russia have continually proposed rearchitecting the Internet at the International Telecommunication Union, the UN agency that hosted the WCIT. They have also been active in cybersecurity standards at the International Electrotechnical Commission, with cybersecurity being a convenient excuse to bake authoritarianism into network architecture. The two countries recently issued a communiqué calling for internationalization of Internet governance, stating that “any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet and ensure their security are unacceptable.”

None of this standards activity is likely to immediately overturn the availability of today’s web. Combined, however, with disinformation mills like the Internet Research Agency, censorship efforts like the Great Firewall, and mass surveillance as practiced by the Chinese Communist Party, one thing is clear—dictators are gunning for the open Internet.

How web3 protocols can support free speech

If we want to protect open discourse in authoritarian countries, we need censorship-resistant technologies. Cryptocurrencies can deliver censorship-resistant payments, which is important when authoritarian governments (or even Canada) use financial chokepoints as a means of stifling protest. Although cryptocurrencies can’t be used to directly express ideas, developers are using their underlying blockchain technology and other adjacent technologies to bring censorship resistance to the broader web. By adopting this suite of technologies, we can make freedom of expression the default, even in authoritarian countries. We can normalize free speech everywhere.

The term “web3” means different things to different people, but I take it to have at least two elements: 1) the use of a blockchain-based naming system for websites and users and 2) content-based addressing with data served over a decentralized peer-to-peer network. These two elements alone represent a significant step forward in censorship resistance, although they do not by themselves guarantee freedom of speech from authoritarian governments because they don’t address all parts of the network (or human) stack.

Blockchain-based naming

Take naming first. Today, we use the hierarchical Domain Name System to transform human readable names, like thecgo.org, to an IP address, like 104.21.34.16. This system relies on multiple levels of centralized authority to do this translation, any one of which could be a vector for domain name censorship, if only because they may be subject to a court order. First, it relies on root servers owned and operated by Public Technical Identifiers, an affiliate of ICANN, to map top-level domain names like .org to the appropriate registry. Next, it relies on the appropriate registry (for .org, a non-profit company called the Public Interest Registry) to point to a set of authoritative name servers. (Sidebar: the Public Interest Registry was almost converted to a for-profit corporation and sold off to a private equity firm in 2020.) And the name server, in this case a private company called Cloudflare, is the authoritative server of domain name records.

Eliminating centralized parties can increase the integrity of the naming system, and the obvious thing to do is to put name records on a decentralized and permissionless blockchain. There are a number of blockchain-based naming systems, but the Ethereum Name Service (ENS) has the most adoption by far. On ENS, you can buy a name that ends in .eth and use it like a domain name to point to a website. Unlike a conventional domain name, once you own the ENS name, nobody can alter your records or revoke your name without your private key. An immutable smart contract controls the user’s ability to edit records.

Beyond functioning like domain names, ENS names can also function as portable usernames. The community is standardizing a process to sign in with an Ethereum address, replacing Web 2.0 login systems that rely on centralized parties like Google, Facebook, and Twitter—another possible vector for censorship. When you sign in with Ethereum, if you have a primary ENS name set for your account, that name can be displayed as your username, enabling your identity to follow you across different services in web3. You can assign an avatar to your ENS name, link your other social media accounts, and even list your non-Ethereum cryptocurrency addresses to make it easier for people to pay you.

Content-based addressing

Beyond blockchain-based naming systems like ENS, content-based addressing is the other critical component of web3. Today, if you go to a conventional website like thecgo.org, the domain name system directs you to a finite list of IP addresses to which you can connect to receive the site’s content. These IP addresses may point to a single server that hosts the content. That server is vulnerable to attack or censorship.

Even if there is some redundancy, it is usually multiple servers that are operated by a single entity that is likewise a vector for censorship. The government can order that entity not to host your content, or it can organize a distributed denial-of-service attack on the servers, if not hack them outright.

Web3, on the other hand, makes use of content-based addressing, mainly through IPFS, that avoids single points of failure. A website on IPFS is served via a peer-to-peer network, with every user replicating the data for each site he or she wants to back up. Cryptography is used to ensure that data that anybody serves up is identical to the published content. 

IPFS has its own naming system, called IPNS, to make site addresses more permanent and allow easy updating to content while using more expensive-to-update systems like ENS. IPFS content is served from a peer-to-peer network rather than a single server. Content can’t be surreptitiously altered, because the system enforces the requirement that the served content matches the cryptographic hash used to ask for the content. And because no single node is necessarily serving the content, the system is more robust against denial-of-service attacks.

web3 today and in the future

Support for web3 technologies is still emerging, but the desktop version of the Brave browser already can use both ENS and IPFS protocols, including through local nodes. You can download Brave and visit the sites of such cool people as Vitalik Buterin, Austin Vernon, and myself at ipns://vitalik.eth, ipns://austinvernon.eth, and ipns://elidourado.eth, respectively. 

These websites are hard to censor. Sure, a sufficiently motivated government could torture us into revealing our private keys or hack our systems so as to push an unapproved update. Perhaps they could track down and arrest everyone in the world who hosts our IPFS content. But this bar for censorship is much higher than issuing a court order to a domain registry or web host.

There has been a backlash against web3 hype lately, and a lot of the criticism is fair. Several aspects of web3, notably including the way that most wallet users connect to the blockchain, are not really decentralized yet. Blockchains still need to scale to reduce fees and make their widespread use viable. A lot of early applications of blockchain technology, such as collectible NFTs, are toys at best and classless displays of wealth at worst.

Yet, there is some magic here. By developing, adopting, and normalizing web3 technologies, we can make censorship a rare and difficult act. In the United States, we have pretty strong (if imperfect) free speech protections, enforced by rule of law and a constitutional commitment. Many countries don’t. Web3, built on blockchain-based names and content-based addressing, could normalize free speech everywhere in the world.

A world where web3 has matured and become the default is one where fewer people live under the boot of state-directed censorship.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.

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