When he wasn’t getting enough attention from the public back in 2017, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon used to play this game: He’d just say something dismissive about bitcoin and it was sure to put him in the headlines.
So, a prominent entrepreneur at the time, Adam Ludwin, then CEO of early enterprise blockchain company Chain, decided to play along.
In a letter posted on his company’s blog, Ludwin argued to Dimon (and, presumably, his true audience, the many curious folks the open letter was sure to reach) that the quality that distinguished cryptocurrency and made it uniquely valuable was something called “censorship resistance.” Ludwin wrote:
“Nothing can stop me from sending bitcoin to anyone I please. Nothing can stop me from executing code on Ethereum. Nothing can stop me from storing files on Filecoin. As long as I have an internet connection and pay the network’s transaction fee, denominated in its crypto asset, I am free to do what I want.”
Censorship resistance is a jargony way of saying speech, or any other activity, that can’t be vetoed or stopped. Ludwin might be right that it’s a killer feature of distributed ledgers, but it goes further. Censorship resistance is also a step change in the history of political philosophy.
It’s an idea that evolved from prior ones, going all the way back to the earliest days of Western civilization (at least). In particular, though, our modern conception of the right to state one’s opinion, or free expression.
Censorship resistance is also an objective that predates blockchains because it has always been an emergent phenomenon of computer networks. In 1993, Time magazine quoted John Gilmore, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as saying, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
Guaranteeing that right may be the way in which the philosophical underpinnings of crypto have their clearest links back to the Enlightenment, or even to ancient times.
“I will die on the hill of privacy and free speech,” Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, said in an interview. “In an authoritarian environment the government shuts down bank accounts of the people who are its critics. They can’t do that any more with bitcoin … Bitcoin is like a machine that turns greed into freedom.”
Crypto is as much an instantiation of a set of ideas as it is an industry. While newcomers may largely be attracted by the prospects of making returns on investment unheard of elsewhere in the economy, the pioneers signed on due to their beliefs. Those who arrive in a bull market but end up sticking around to the next one usually do so because of some deeper meaning that they find on-chain.
Cryptocurrency, we have argued, is most closely related to the cypherpunk ideas that formed over an influential early email list, but nearly as important has been libertarianism, the idea that people need little or no state rulemaking in order to productively conduct their affairs.
A third related but distinct idea is that of censorship resistance, the notion that blockchain technology gives people a way to express what they think (whether with words or with assets) in such a way that no one can stop them.
The notion of freedom of speech stretches back, in the West, all the way to antiquity.
In ancient Athens, for example, “there was a broader freedom to be bold and speak your mind that was born of a more tolerant culture, if you like. So that basically means that it was built on the idea that everyone – even the low-born and even the poor – had, at least in theory, an equal opportunity to speak their mind,” Jacob Mchangama, host of a podcast on the history of free speech, said in a phone call.
The limitation of free speech is usually set with some relation to safety. The classic example is that no one is allowed to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, but “safety” has a way of getting redefined depending on the times. Replace the word “safety” with “security” and it’s easy to unpack how that works.
This trade-off between liberty and security has been one that societies have gone back and forth on for as long as humans have lived under one sovereign or another. In what follows, the crypto industry’s commitment to free speech is grounded primarily in thinking spanning from the Enlightenment to today. We explore some of the key viewpoints of that era and then link them to more contemporary issues, bringing in the perspectives of some of today’s strongest blockchain proponents, before finally turning to some of the uncomfortable issues raised by an online world.
Cryptocurrency and cryptographic technology represent a point of philosophical progress in this long push and pull. For a very long time, free expression was a conversation both about state censorship but also about societal censure. Then, with the birth of the United States, freedom of speech became a legal right and a clearer line in the sand, but that also narrowed the conversation to one strictly pertaining to citizens’ rights versus the state’s desire for security of the people and of the sovereign.
In the U.S., for example, it’s often argued that platform censorship is not a freedom of speech issue but really a property rights issue, and in the strictest American legal sense it’s not. The author of the classic text on free expression from Britain, John Stuart Mill, would beg to differ, as a moral question.
Mill wrote in his seminal tract, “On Liberty,” published in 1859:
“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.”
In other words, state censorship is bad but fear of side-eye is enough to make any number of people self-censor, and that’s too bad, in Mill’s view. The world works best, he contends, when everyone is true to themselves. That’s how people and societies flourish.
But blockchain technology has created something new under the philosophical gaze, with censorship resistance. Such technology sets aside the issue of state power or corporate power and gives those who so desire a way to express themselves in a fashion that is extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to silence entirely.
As Gilmore said, networks have always routed around censorship, but blockchains give them a way to just blast through. Gladstein called it “unstoppable speech.”
It’s fairly clear on which side of the freedom and security question the pioneers in this industry err. In ”The libbitcoin Manifesto,” for example, Amir Taaki wrote, “The internet is a tool of freedom and self-determination. Meddling in its mechanics is destructive. Whenever a website is blocked, a protocol is corrupted at some low level or undesirable traffic shaping occurs then seismic ripples of censorship and destruction lead to degradation of the network. The internet is fundamental to humanity, and must be protected at all costs.” Heady stuff for a set of software libraries.
But Bitcoin might have been the internet’s way of protecting itself.
To what end?
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat,” John Milton wrote in “Areopagitica,” a pamphlet he distributed in 1644, in protest of a law requiring licensing of books.
He argued that the best remedy for bad books and bad ideas was testing them against reason and discussion on the public stage, not silencing their authors before their notions could ever be tested.
This was classic Enlightenment thinking, which at the time was something not unlike hipsters were in the late 1990s: a phenomenon everyone could recognize but resisted precise definition. Everyone knew they were in the Enlightenment when it was happening but they didn’t know what it was.
That is, until Germany’s Immanuel Kant would, 140 years later, articulate for everyone what was going on. Everyone knew they were in an age of expanded understanding, but no one quite knew what that meant. Kant is best known for his so-called Copernican Revolution, in which he completely flipped the script on how we know what we know.
But he also conceptualized the moment he was in, the Enlightenment, for the rest of the world, writing,
“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance.”
In the Enlightenment, an idea was taking hold that the world works best when people can freely express themselves and thereby also make their own determination of how they should live.
Of course that sounds perfectly unobjectionable on its face, but one only has to scan Google News or Twitter for a bit to find people taking exception to free speech in practice.
But it could just be that that concept of speech is too tied to the notion of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Andrew Bailey, a philosopher who writes philosophy about Bitcoin and a member of the Resistance Money group, said in an interview, “‘Speech’ feels more narrow to me than ‘expression.’”
Bailey explained that Mill “doesn’t come from this absolutist libertarian perspective … He thinks human flourishing is the thing we ought to promote.”
In other words, free speech allows for the refinement of ideas that can lead humans to becoming their best selves, both individually and collectively.
Mill wrote, “Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.”
Perhaps technology provides a mechanism by which ideas can continue to be sifted and winnowed by thoughtful people, despite interference by those who perceive some ideas as dangerous.
Considered that way, cryptocurrency can be read as the latest contribution to a very long philosophical conversation, one aiming for a panacea that will never manifest – but that’s no reason to quit trying. Mchangama recalled the blogosphere era of the internet, when it was more dispersed. Getting kicked out of the comments section of some blog (even a big one) or message board then didn’t matter so much, but now when someone gets kicked off Facebook or Twitter it is as if they are excommunicated from the whole web.
Any voice a person has built up can just be instantly wiped away by those platforms.
When Tim May wrote “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto,” he saw technology that fought censorship in even bigger terms. He wrote:
“Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so, too, will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.”
But let’s be totally honest and admit that human flourishing doesn’t precisely seem to be the emphasis across the crypto industry.
The hardcore libertarian Mises Institute, for example, recently took a look at the de-platforming of certain prominent users of social media through the lens of property rights vs. free speech rights, concluding property rights are the grounds for free speech rights.
Erik Voorhees, the creator of SatoshiDice and co-founder and CEO of ShapeShift, a very early non-custodial exchange, struck a similar note in a phone interview. “There’s just one right and that’s that you own yourself. Everything else is just derivative from that,” he said. “It’s really just a foundation of logical property rights which establishes free speech.”
A fair reading of this, as opposed to Mill, is that the philosophical end here is preserving each individual’s right to what is their own. If they choose to find a way to flourish or to stagnate from there, it’s not really a matter for others to worry about.
Similarly, bitcoin enthusiast, computer engineer and Bloomberg Opinion contributor Elaine Ou has written about the Bitcoin system as a means of censorship resistance. In her conception, the optimal strategy is for everyone to use privacy preserving forms of communication (whether communicating ideas or making transactions) at all times, because masking innocuous messages is a great way to stymie spies, who won’t know which messages matter and which ones don’t.
“Money shouldn’t have morals. We’re building a global currency, not roleplaying Model U.N. And that’s everything that’s wrong with fiat money today,” Ou wrote.
But in her post she details how, more and more, money gets used to enforce acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. For now, that’s fine with most people, so long as the unacceptable behaviors are terrorists and criminals. But what happens when the list of unacceptable activity expands to include, for example, dissidents or cultural provocateurs?
Notably, her post also embraces the fact that unseemly characters can make use of bitcoin. For free expression types, this is just the unfortunate upshot of actual liberty, but that argument doesn’t fly with many.
Bad actors are the point of departure for the adamantly nocoiner crowd (a term for members of the public who have taken a stance against cryptocurrencies, at the conceptual level). David Golumbia is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of 2016’s “The Politics of Bitcoin,” which takes a dim view of its subject, to say the least.
“I see all through digital culture, really, a dismissal of really core aspects of Enlightenment philosophy,” Golumbia said in an interview. In particular, he objected to the notion of “code is law,” because government should be the work of humans rather than machines, he argued. He sees in crypto an attack on the notion that governments are run by people.
“The whole project of democracy itself is really under threat,” he said.
And while not willing to go quite so far, even Mchangama has trouble with the idea that the free movement of money counts as freedom of speech. He doesn’t think it’s the same as the free movement of ideas.
“Like every other concept,” he said, “one also has to guard against its dilution and its scope creep.”
But it’s not as if the blockchain industry has stayed put on the issue either.
If we agree that cryptocurrency’s old guard sees free speech as a property issue, Mill’s conception of free expression as a way to engender human flourishing would probably earn more sympathy in the Ethereum community. It has proven itself to be something of an exception in crypto, because it arguably has more of a focus on public goods than it does private property.
But however one conceptualizes free expression, no one should blind themselves to the fact that we have entered an era when the internet has made speech on the internet more than words. Bitcoin turned code into real money. It’s easy to see how that’s bigger than speech, even if you buy the idea that Bitcoin is a story users are all telling together.
But even before Bitcoin, the internet had already made speech much more like life itself.
The principle gets difficult
If there’s a new toy that has crypto excited at this time, it’s this idea of the metaverse. The metaverse right now feels like decentralized finance did in 2018: You can see how it might end up being something, but it’s still not much of anything yet.
In other words, digital life has come to look more and more like a life. Even now, without spaces that are all that immersive, it’s kind of there.
“The old school way of establishing the [limits of] freedom of speech is physical harm to someone else, but that criteria doesn’t make sense in digital,” Bailey said.
Digital is introducing new kinds of harms that ethics haven’t quite caught up to.
Peter Ludlow is a philosopher of language and author or editor of multiple books, including High Noon on the Electronic Frontier and Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias. He’s always been focused on online communities.
“My thought was these virtual spaces are becoming the new commons,” he said in a phone interview. He has become concerned that there aren’t really common spaces anymore where people have real dialogue and where everyone belongs, because all the giant online forums are mediated by private owners. “Maybe when you get to virtual worlds, you are reclaiming these common spaces where people can argue about things?” he said.
But he’s also been studying these worlds closely enough to know that they create new kinds of harms as well, and it’s narrow-minded to pretend as if nothing that happens inside them is “real.”
He pointed to an account by Julian Dibbell from 1998, called A Rape in Cyberspace. It’s the story of what many witnesses came to feel was a sexual assault that occurred in a space that was made up entirely of words, because that’s all the web was really capable of at the time.
As if the conclusions he reached reporting this story were a sort of disembodied set of ideas that he only bore witness to, Dibbell wrote,
“For whatever else these thoughts were telling me, I have come to hear in them an announcement of the final stages of our decades-long passage into the Information Age, a paradigm shift that the classic liberal firewall between word and deed (itself a product of an earlier paradigm shift commonly known as the Enlightenment) is not likely to survive intact.”
And before anyone objects that actions on an old website have nothing to do with digital currency as such – that it’s like comparing soccer games to country agricultural fairs just because they both tend to take place on fields of grass – Dibbell expands the idea to the point that it should hit home on the blockchains.
He explained, “The commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations.”
They are incantations that can make people feel physically attacked and violated.
The online world is a world, and that complicates free-speech purism.
“We can grow ignorant again, brutish, formal and slavish as ye found us, but you then must first become that which ye cannot be, oppressive, arbitrary, and tyrannous as they were from whom ye have free’d us.”
John Milton, Aeropagitica
Milton wrote those many years ago, warning of what happens when the flow of ideas is stymied by myopia.
But this also is why cryptocurrency is a step change. Maybe from blockchain adoption forward, we really can’t ever become so “formal and slavish” ever again?
We’ve got a good record of the fact that powerful institutions are loath to forever resist the temptation to censor.
Mchangama gave the example of Britain in World War I, which controlled most of the undersea cables used to communicate globally. He said that the government applied the censors to those communications in its own interest as the crisis loomed. “Britain, at that time also saw itself as sort of the preeminent liberal state of the day. And so once you have that degree of centralization, you can count on even democracies to use it for their own benefit.”
Under democracies, free expression might be enshrined in law, but the law is administered by humans. Or as Voorhees put it, “Before bitcoin, censorship resistance meant a system of more trustworthy people.”
Liberal democracies have been fairly trustworthy in that way for some time.
“I think unfortunately, one of the reasons why tolerance for certain ideas might be in decline is also that we take free speech for granted, right?” Mchangama argued. “We’ve sort of been spoiled with free speech, whereas if you were an African American, and you grew up in the 50s, 40s or 60s, you would have tasted state censorship on your body if you’d been part of the civil rights movement.”
So one of the advantages blockchain technology offers is immutability, which is another way of saying unerasability as well.
And also unstoppability. Once upon a time, free expression had to be argued for. With blockchain technology, it doesn’t need arguments. With cryptographic tools, people can just say what they please. The only limitation is the number of listeners on the other end.
So in this moment of “content moderation” and “anti-money-laundering” and other policy nomenclatures that in one way or another force people to say or not say more than they would like (to say who they are in every transaction, for example, but also to not say things labelled as misinformation, as another), we are at the same crossroads Kant articulated in 1748.
Should humanity embrace nonage and let others decide which experiences, ideas and transactions they can handle or should it embrace a technology that lets them use the global network of the internet as they please?
Kant’s conclusion rings truer than ever:
“When we ask, Are we now living in an enlightened age? the answer is, No, but we live in an age of enlightenment.”
Previous entries in this series on the philosophy of cryptocurrency: