The Perils of Centralized Control

“It is in the nature of a system of government control of business to aim at the utmost centralization…In voting for government control of business the voters implicitly, although unwittingly, are voting for more centralization.”

– Ludwig Von Mises

One of the most underestimated threats that modern society faces is the ever tightening grip of centralized control. History has shown us time and again that centralized control inevitably devolves into tyranny, eroding the foundations of liberty upon which free societies are built. The 10 planks of communism, as outlined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, that serves as the blueprint for transitioning society to a collectivist system cannot be implemented without centralization first occurring; due to the fact that communism at its core seeks to abolish every form of private ownership while enthroning the state as master of all. The sad reality is that these planks have been gradually implemented over the years by most countries in the world, thus progressively eroding free markets and the overall liberty of their citizens.

The centralization of speech online is the most recent threat that has emerged as a potent tool for state control. Ironically, this phenomenon resembles the realization of plank 6 of the communist manifesto, which advocates for the “centralization of the Means of Communication and Transport in the Hands of the State.” As commerce and communications via online platforms grows, these two very important aspects of human existence become centralized in the hands of the big tech companies that own these platforms. In our cancel culture driven world, the increasing overlap between centralized social media platforms and financial services has significantly increased the risk of absolute censorship; where violating the constantly changing “community guidelines” can lead to one becoming persona non grata and being immediately deplatformed.

Without decentralized alternatives, censoring any speech or transaction that is deemed “undesirable” becomes a trivial matter. Big tech social media giants acting as the de facto thought police and enforcers for the state, wield immense influence over the flow of information, and suppress every form of dissent through the threat of financial strangulation when one doesn’t toe the line. There are two major factors that undergird this power to silence dissent online:

Centralized nature of the social media platforms Centralized payment processors like PayPal that dominate these platforms

For individuals who rely on social media for their livelihood, deplatforming represents a significant threat, not only to their ability to express themselves freely but also to their income. Self-censorship naturally becomes the norm and this is even more dangerous as it creates the illusion of alignment with the current thing of the day. Thankfully, Bitcoin has made these payment processors irrelevant and due to it being fully decentralized, neutral, apolitical and censorship resistant; it’s a viable alternative.

Code is Speech

In 2013 Cody Wilson, the pioneer of the world’s first 3-D printable gun, received a letter from the State Department demanding removal of blueprints for his plastic firearm, the Liberator, or risk facing jail time and millions in fines. In 2015 Wilson’s organization, Defense Distributed, filed a lawsuit against the State Department, alleging that prohibiting the publication of his plans, which are essentially computer code, constitutes a prior restraint of free speech rights, as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US constitution. The dispute revolved around the State Department’s claim that posting 3-D printable gun files online constitutes a potential breach of arms export controls, a controversial set of regulations known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

The history of ITAR has been marred by controversy and contention. In the 90s, it was used to target cryptographers (aka cypherpunks), classifying strong encryption tools as military munitions. After the source code for PGP was released and printed out as a book, it immediately fell under First Amendment protection. Despite this seemingly obvious fact, its inventor Phil Zimmermann, was subjected to a grueling three-year Department Of Justice (DOJ) investigation during these Crypto Wars, which was subsequently put to bed without any indictments. In 1995 cryptographer Dan Bernstein also sued the DOJ, arguing ITAR violated his First Amendment rights, and won the case. This was the landmark case that designated code as speech.

Despite the State Department’s two-year enforcement of ITAR against Defense Distributed, it failed to stop the proliferation of its 3-D printable gun files online. Instead, concerns over censorship spurred over 100,000 downloads of the Liberator blueprint in just two days! Despite removal from Defense Distributed’s websites, the file quickly spread to platforms like the Pirate Bay, making erasure nearly impossible. Attempts to ban speech in the digital age are not only absurd but futile because of its ability to manifest in infinite forms.The historical example of RSA’s classification as munition highlights the futility of restricting information as epitomized by printing forbidden information on t-shirts. Information must be free.

Export-controlled RSA encryption source code on a T-shirt turned the shirt into a restricted munition.

In an interview I had with Jessica Solce, the film maker and executive producer of Death Athletic: A Dissident Architecture a documentary that profiled Cody Wilson and the 3D-printed guns movement; when commenting on the significance of Cody’s battle with the government she said,

Cody entangled the First and Second Amendment by pushing guns into the digital era. He utilized the burgeoning technology of 3D printing to reduce a gun to code. This WikiWeapon, the Liberator, was directly inspired by Wikileaks, and immediately threatened the Government’s axis of power and control. It was a masterful play that antagonized the military complex and forced the conversation of gun control into the age of the Internet.”

In other words, Wilson didn’t just challenge the military industrial complex’s monopolization (i.e., centralization) of firearms manufacturing. His stance extended to firmly resisting instances of government overreach that sought to regulate and control information pertaining to emerging technologies, which in and of itself is another form of centralized control. A condition which George Orwell described in his book 1984 as, “an endless present in which the party is always right”.

Interestingly Jessica also encountered firm resistance from centralized content distributors and media outlets when the film was released, as it definitely didn’t fit the “approved narrative” because on the surface it looks like a film about guns but it’s really a story about the power of free speech and free access to information in the internet age. Clearly the time is ripe for more decentralized content distribution and streaming services that are integrated with Bitcoin payments, think Angel Studios on a Bitcoin standard. This will empower content creators to not only profit from captivating content while simultaneously challenging centralized control over information, ensuring artistic creative control, prioritizing truth, and preservation of free speech., but I digress.

In July 2018, three years after Defense Distributed challenged the State Department’s actions in court, they accepted a settlement offer from the State Department, including a license to publish its files and a payment of nearly $40,000. When questioned about the settlement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert justified the decision, stating that the Department of Justice advised settling the case to avoid likely loss on First Amendment grounds in court. Information must be free.

This and many other ongoing legal battles faced by Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed underscore important aspects of individual rights and freedom of speech that must be defended. These battles serve as a reminder that:

The state seeks to control and capture new technologies by “any means necessary” Lawfare and bureaucracy are the weapons of choice in achieving this aim More decentralized technological tools and protocols that incorporate Bitcoin as the monetary layer need to be built to ensure the preservation of liberty and individual sovereignty.

Jessica echoed similar sentiments when stating one of the biggest takeaways that she hopes people will get from Cody’s story; “The takeaway is to build however you can – community, resources, decentralized systems, archive history and information. The battle for information, the era of the Internet and the battle for its control must be understood as a type of new frontier. Many are against second amendment rights so I’d ask them are they truly against the free and open dissemination of information as well? Do they like someone telling them what they are able and not able to understand and read?”

I couldn’t agree more.

Decoding Free Speech in the Digital Age

Just like PGP or Cody’s 3D-printable gun designs, Bitcoin at its core is fundamentally open source code, thus Bitcoin is speech. In the words of Beautyon,“There is no point in any Bitcoin transaction that Bitcoin ceases to be text. It is all text, all the time.The ruling in the Bernstein v. The DOJ case set a precedent that recognized code as protected speech under the First Amendment, and therefore this protection also directly applies to Bitcoin. Fundamentally, Bitcoin is a messaging system and functions much like email and text messaging, all of which transmit messages. Its primary aim is to definitively confirm an owner’s control over a cryptographic key, represented as a block of text, enabling access to a corresponding entry in the global Bitcoin network ledger. The point here is that restriction of communication using programming languages is an example of a prior restraint of speech.

Attempts to ban Bitcoin are just as ludicrous as banning memorizing 12 words in your head or outlawing certain musical scores .Does this mean that the powers that be will not try to outlaw Bitcoin and increase their grip on the narrative through censorship? You bet they will! Just like they have declared war on free speech online by rebranding it as a war on “misinformation and disinformation”, propaganda is also being disseminated by the corporate media that paints Bitcoin mining in particular, as being harmful to the environment, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked along with the usual “Bitcoin is for money launderers and criminals

Time fails me to discuss the latest proposed FinCen regulations and the EU’s Markets in Crypto Assets (MiCA) law which are all very subtle but sinister attempts to gradually cripple Bitcoin in the name of combating money laundering and enforcing know your customer policies.. In the same vein, digital ID’s and central bank digital currencies (CBDC’s), are more than just surveillance tech; but are also weapons for destroying free speech and independent thought. The ultimate road to serfdom. While legal challenges against all these forms of government overreach noted above will be launched and likely won, they take a long time to settle and are usually very costly. The best solution is to develop more open-source, decentralized technological tools that will thwart and defang any attempts by the state to censor speech.

As big tech companies pay lip service to freedom of speech while simultaneously implementing “freedom of speech not reach policies, online discourse increasingly mirrors the authoritarian control described by Ludwig von Mises when he said: “At every instant of his life the “comrade” is bound to obey implicitly the orders issued by the supreme authority. The State is both his guardian and his employer. The State determines his work, his diet, and his pleasures. The State tells him what to think and what to believe in”. This is even more true today, than it was in 1944 when it was written.

Without the freedom of speech we lose a critical part of what it means to be free human beings. Today we may witness the battles between Defense Distributed and the State Department, Wikileaks and the DOJ, Bernstein and the DOJ, and so on. However, one thing remains clear: the players may change, and the time frames may differ, but the underlying struggle has always been centralization versus decentralization, a battle between those who seek to control speech and those who seek to liberate it. Satoshi Nakamoto, Julian Assange, Aaron Schwartz and many others are some of the martyrs of freedom that contributed immensely to the preservation of free speech in our society today. Bitcoin is the best shot that we have at safeguarding the future from being suffocated by the censorship industrial complex leviathan. 

This is a guest post by Kudzai Kutukwa. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.