Blockchain: Technology alone cannot protect freedom of expression

Digital 3 min read
ARTICLE 19

ARTICLE 19 has issued a warning about the promotion of blockchain technology as a solution to censorship. In a report published today, the freedom of expression organisation identifies some of the risks that arise from the use of blockchain technology. It also identifies steps that states, public organisations and tech companies should take to ensure that human rights are protected when this technology is used.

Mallory Knodel, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Digital said:

“Blockchain presents many exciting possibilities to counter censorship online but we need to be aware of potential pitfalls that could threaten freedom of expression. Technology alone is not the solution to censorship.

“Blockchain is still vulnerable to repressive tactics, such as Internet shutdowns or restrictions on encryption technologies, which are likely to be used by states that are in most need of censorship-resistant platforms.”

Knodel also warned of the implications of the increased use of blockchain by public institutions:

“The widespread adoption of blockchain technology by public institutions could put the protection of freedom of expression in the hands of tech companies. This shift in trust is problematic; it is down to states, not private corporations, to protect human rights. In particular, when public institutions use blockchain, for example for record-keeping, they must consider the human rights implications.”

Other key findings are:

Security: The security aspects of blockchain can be exaggerated. Although the core benefit of blockchain is that it is decentralised, users still have to place trust in the software and tools to access this technology, and these can be points of access for vulnerabilities. 

Privacy: The immutability of blockchain poses challenges for the regulation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which gives Europeans the right to ask companies to stop or using or to delete their data.

Legitimate restrictions: Blockchain technologies could be used to prevent states from legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression – for example, when platforms are used to store or disseminate illegal content, such as child abuse images. 

Accessibility: It is difficult to host blockchains on mobile devices, which could exclude access to blockchain in regions where Internet access is mostly through such devices.

Liability: Governments should make sure that blockchain platforms are not liable for content stored on their platforms.

Diversity: Civil society should be involved in the governance of blockchain, particularly where technologies  are designed by core groups of developers who may not represent the diversity of society.

Anonymity: Although limited information about individuals is stored in transaction logs, mandatory registration schemes could interfere with the right to be anonymous online. For example, the central internet regulator in China proposed regulations that would require local blockchain companies to register users with their real names and national identification card numbers.

 

Read the full report

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