There ain’t no such thing as free speech, let’s focus on making it cheaper.

Speech has never been “free” in the monetary sense of the word. Talk is cheap in that it doesn’t require anything more than time and effort, but there are always costs to expression. These costs have discouraged and prevented people from being able to express themselves throughout history.

Before the printing press, books were almost exclusively available to the wealthy; duplication involved intense manual labor and often scarce resources. Many surviving parchments show evidence of multiple-texts as a result of the recycling of this costly medium (at the cost of those older writings). High capital and labor requirements facilitated a natural monopoly over information as the churches of the time exerted strict control over heretical thought.

Those who expressed ideas against the teachings of the church were often persecuted during this period. Not simply to silence the punished heretics; but to publicly intimidate anyone who would dare question the sacrosanct thoughts of the time. Cold steel has very chilling effects on free expression. Scientists like Galileo suffered persecution and arrest for merely reporting objective observations of the world. Observations that would later be proven to be correct and eventually accepted by the church.

Distribution costs

Technology has already done much to reduce the distribution costs of expression. Both the printing press and internet were followed by what can only be described as revolutions in the culture of expression and communal ideation. The cheaper we make expression, the richer it becomes as the previously disenfranchised are allowed to participate.

Today the capital/labor cost of duplication is much cheaper than in Galileo’s time; but speech is still not free. High traffic websites often see thousands of dollars in monthly hosting costs to serve the masses. Social-networking sites are able to foster the illusion of cost-free expression because the marginal costs are relatively low. But someone inevitably has to pay for the servers and those same people typically manage the operation of the site.

More often than not funding for social networks takes the form of advertising. In other words our ability to widely express thoughts are funded by those willing pay for prominent authoritative placement of their own speech in front of those who are not. In this model the costs become centralized at the server administrators. The company grows a userbase to attract advertisers in the hopes of profiting from their efforts. Since the advertisers are effectively subsidizing everyone else, they are often held responsible for the content they are indirectly associated with.

This structure creates a moral hazard where it is in the best interests of a site’s administrators to manipulate content in order to please the advertisers that keep the lights on. This may take the form of suppressing controversial content, or deceptively promoting favorable content. This model has always always suffered an eventual a loss of freedom, authenticity or both. “If you’re not the customer you are the product” is a common phrase among those unsatisfied with the current state of these networks.

Corporate or ideological censorship is only possible when there are gatekeepers with the ability to unilaterally edit. This centralization of power is inherent in the traditional server/client model that powers most websites. The corporate entity functions as a single point of failure where political and financial pressure can be applied against the the desires of the users.

Everyone expects the SJW Inquisition

While technology has greatly reduced the dissemination costs of information, this has also given rise to widespread public shaming of those who espouse unpopular opinions. Surely not quite as severe as a real inquisition, a #twitterinquisition can have disastrous effects on one’s life and the intended effect of such shaming is the same as churches punishing heretics. It causes people to self-censor out of a fear that anything controversial they say might come back to hurt them. Far more worrisome than your average Slactivist Justice Warior are the authoritarian governments who are widely known to actively monitor and store internet traffic indefinitely. So far technology has not reduced the potential reputation cost of speech; if anything it has increased this potential cost in modern times.

What if we gave up on free speech?

What if we embraced the fact that expression and cost are inexorably intertwined and do what we can to reduce the costs? We can do this with decentralization/distribution of infrastructure costs in a P2P network that ensures strong default anonymity.

Consider BitTorrent where individuals clients share the bandwidth burden. Distributing the costs to a point where they seem to disappear. No central authority can dictate or remove content from such a system; but trackers are able to index the content most relevant to their user base. If we could distribute social networks in similar fashion we can eliminate the potential for unilateral censorship by corporations or governments.

The counter to modern-day inquisition is strong anonymity as a default. It is quite easy to build identities on top of an anonymous system but incredibly difficult to engineer anonymity on top of an identifiable system. So far onion routing is one of the best tools we have; but even it is imperfect against very well funded nation-states.

This weekend myself and others are participating in a global “Decentralize All The Things” hackathon with the goal of coming up with solutions to the problems I describe here. If you want to participate Contact Me and I’ll make sure you get invited to the slack channel.