January 20th, 2021

One of the core value propositions of decentralized technologies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum is often stated as censorship resistance. Some have gone so far as to say that it’s the only value proposition that matters and determines whether a decentralized system can be advantageous relative to a centralized one, because otherwise the extra costs and complexity of using such systems wouldn’t be worth it relative to efficient centralized alternatives. With the current events unfolding in the world, and the centralized platforms responses to these events being to ban users and limit what may be communicated, many have looked to the set of decentralized technologies, collectively known as web3, to enable trustless platforms which make it impossible for this type of selective censorship to occur. Of course the chorus of financially motivated stakeholders in the projects see this as an opportunity for growth, attention, and “web3’s moment”, however I’d caution many parties here — the project builders themselves, their communities, their financial backers, and their users to tread cautiously. This is a responsibility that should be handled with care.

I work on a decentralized video infrastructure project called Livepeer, where our mission is to build the world’s open video infrastructure. In the early days of the project I spent a lot of time talking about the positive benefits of an open video platform, such as enabling developers to build platforms that protect live journalism, freedom of speech, and community governed content policies. I still very much think these are great ideals to aspire to. But, many users unable to recognize the difference between an infrastructure platform and a consumer application, mistakenly believed that Livepeer was building something that looked like a censorship resistant Youtube — where individual streamers could show up and begin broadcasting their content.

The dark side of censorship resistance began to expose itself, as many of those unhappy with the existing centralized streaming platforms, were looking to use an alternative for a purpose that may look familiar to challenges that our society is asking the large social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch to police today — the spread of misinformation, coordination of violence, even copyright infringement which seems quaint by comparison. I spent time with 3rd party rights protection groups like Thorn.org, which work tirelessly to protect children from abuse that occurs to them via the internet. These things aren’t freedom of speech or censorship issues, they are actually legal violations, life-altering level harmful, and potentially risks to society.

While any large platform that coordinates large groups of people across a wide cross-slice of humanity ends up having to deal with these challenges, it is especially exacerbated in the live video streaming world. Content in a live stream is typically consumed within seconds of its creation, leaving things like community moderation, potentially insufficient to provide the protections needed to prevent the harm that can come.