A free speech advocate's dream -- the next Reddit could be based on bitcoin and impossible to censor

Riots on fire burning flame ferguson missouriScott Olson/Getty ImagesHow Reddit felt on Friday.

What’s next for Reddit? After the abrupt dismissal of a popular staff member saw its volunteer moderators take hundreds of the site’s most popular communities offline in protest, some users have speculated that this is the beginning of the end for the community-driven news site.

But there’s another, far more radical vision for Reddit (or a site just like it): A decentralised, bitcoin-powered community that is impossible to shut down, impossible to censor.

It’s the free speech advocate’s dream — and it’s not as unrealistic as you might think.

Similar projects are already thriving, and two new blog posts published on Sunday have made clear just how close we already are.

Bitcoin, meet Reddit

First we have Fred Wilson, a prominent venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures. Wilson suggests taking one of the underlying principles of bitcoin — the blockchain — and applying to Reddit. The blockchain, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a decentralised ledger that stores every transaction made on the bitcoin network. It means there is no need for a central bank to keep a record of who’s spending what, because everyone has the record. It also means that because everyone has a copy, it is all but impossible to censor.

Apply that principle to Reddit and it gives you a community, collectively powered by its users, that is impossible to censor. It’s the techno-libertarian dream of effectively limitless free speech.

Reddit all ellen pao fat people hate community responseRedditAfter r/FatPeopleHate was banned, the community erupted with anger.

Many of Reddit’s recent woes have come from the tensions that have risen between the site’s support of free speech, and the reality of having to police a website for abusive, offensive, or illegal content. (Many users were outraged when the site banned r/FatPeopleHate, a community dedicated to — you guessed it! — hating fat people.)

Wilson suggests that, actually, “it may be that there is no viable middle ground between a centrally controlled media platform and an entirely decentralized media platform. You are either going to police the site or you are going to build something that cannot be policed even if you want to.”

He goes on: “The interesting thing about an entirely decentralized media platform is that you can have clients that choose to curate, police, and censor and clients that choose not to … The demand is there. The supply (technology) is there. And we’ve seen a bunch of teams working on this. I think one or more will get it right. And I think that will happen soon.”

This isn’t just a thought experiment

Interesting hypothetical idea, right? Well, it gets a lot more exciting when you take into account the fact that Reddit has previously tried to do exactly this.

A second blog post, published by former Reddit engineer Ryan X. Charles on Sunday, sheds new light on internal experiments at Reddit. Charles, though no longer working at the company, was hired as a “cryptocurrency engineer,” to help develop a digital currency for the site.

Yishan WongTwitter/Yishan WongFormer Reddit CEO Yishan Wong reportedly wanted to decentralise Reddit.

But, he writes, “we actually had a secret, higher priority goal: We wanted to decentralise Reddit.”

In a discussion last year with then-CEO Yishan Wong, Charles was told that the company “had a high-level plan of decentralizing reddit in the works, and they needed someone to execute this vision. Soon thereafter, I left my job at BitPay, the leading bitcoin payment processing company, to join reddit, Inc. My primary goal at reddit on Day 1 was to decentralize reddit.”

Ultimately, the plans never came to fruition. Wong parted ways with Reddit, as did Charles just months later after a large funding round. But how might it have operated? The engineer gives an example:

Each user has an app, the reddit app, which connects to the reddit p2p network. For most users, the app is a normal web app. Each user funds their own app with a small amount of bitcoin. In order to download content, the user pays a very, very small amount of bitcoin to the peers on the network. This incentivizes people to keep the app open so as to keep servicing the other users. Furthermore, when a user upvotes content, that sends a small amount of bitcoin to the author of that content, thus incentivizing the production of good content. If all the content is authenticated, we can be reasonably sure most payments are going to the right people.

In this scenario, reddit, Inc. still exists, they just don’t have a monopoly on the hosting of reddit content. Instead, anyone can run the app to host the content, and reddit, Inc. is just the biggest service provider. Any user can run a business by running the app full-time. Any user, including reddit, Inc., can censor content they themselves deliver to other users, but cannot censor content other users send to other users.

Decentralised networks are far closer than you realise

Bitcoin is the highest-profile realisation of a blockchain-powered app, but it’s not the only one. One of the other significant examples is OpenBazaar. Originally developed as a successor to online drug marketplace Silk Road, it has evolved to become a decentralised marketplace that lets users buy and sell literally anything using bitcoin.

As such, OpenBazaar faces all the same challenges that any decentralised media platform would. How do you tackle harassment, or slander, or deceit? How do you deal with objectionable content? How do you persuade people to contribute processing power to the upkeep of a network that will, in all likelihood, be used to help facilitate illegal activity?

Open bazaar honeyBrian HoffmanHoney Hoffman has bought on OpenBazaar. He says he has had no problem with illegal material yet.

In June, OpenBazaar took $US1 million in VC funding from Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most high-profile venture capital funds, as well as Union Square Ventures — the same fund Wilson is a partner at. At the time of the funding, lead developer Brian Hoffman was candid about the fact there would inevitably be “misuse” of OpenBazaar by criminals, but hoped the funding round would help “legitimise development of the protocol.”

Hoffman’s argument is that as OpenBazaar is a protocol (like BitTorrent), rather than a centralised entity (like the Pirate Bay), its developers can’t be held liable for what takes place on it — the same argument the creators of a decentralised Reddit would likely use to wash their hands of illegal content.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hoffman told Business Insider that he thinks Wilson is “super on point with this analysis I think.”

The developer recommends some caution: “Being both a huge Twitter and Reddit fan I certainly think building a decentralized media company is intriguing but harder than it looks. You kind of saw the difficulty with attempts like Diaspora [an earlier decentralised social network] that never really took off. Projects like OpenBazaar and others are feverishly working to unbundle those types of businesses to push profit generation to the edges rather than by charging a toll with ads or fees in the center.

“The blockchain and decentralized databases enable us to do so and those offerings are improving every day.”

“A paradigm shift is happening”

Pao reutersRobert Galbraith/ReutersEllen Pao, the embattled CEO of Reddit.

The outcome of the #RedditRevolt, as some are calling it, is anyone’s guess. More than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for CEO Ellen Pao’s removal over the weekend, while clones like Voat.co are springing up and promising users an “uncensored” Reddit-like experience. But at the same time, it’s not clear how many “ordinary” Reddit users — the majority of whom never even register accounts — care about these company politics.

Whether it is ultimately Reddit or not, however, it is inevitable that someone experiments with building Wilson’s idea of a decentralised media platform. After all, as Charles points out, companies are already attempting it. When that happens, OpenBazaar may provide a useful social, business, and legal blueprint to follow.

“Incumbents like Reddit should be watching over their shoulders,” Hoffman tells me, “because a paradigm shift is happening and it’s closer than you think.”

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