Is Holochain a Safe Haven for Dangerous Extremists or a Beacon of Hope for Accountability?

Holo | 02.23| 25

Assessing Risk and Opportunity in Light of the Deplatforming of Parler and Other Recent Events

Co-authored with Arthur Brock, Holochain chief architect

Lately we’ve seen the deplatforming of communication apps that have been used unchecked for the planning of violence or the spreading of disinformation that resulted in violence, especially the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Extremist groups had already been pushed toward the most fringe, most permissive communication apps such as Parler and Gab after more mainstream apps like Facebook and WhatsApp increasingly moderated activity throughout 2020. Since Jan 6, though, even the fringe apps have been crippled by their disappearance from the Apple and Google app stores and from hosting services such as Amazon’s.

Public opinion about these kinds of measures being taken by major providers of centralized technology has cut both ways: many moderate voices have applauded the shutdowns and the fact that such levers exist, while many whose communication channels have been cut off — on multiple sides of the political polyhedron — have decried the loss of ‘freedom of speech’, insisted on a need for censor-proof platforms, and scrambled to figure out where and how to organize.

This has led many people to speculate that a peer-to-peer platform like Holochain could be the answer for the Parlers and fringe actors of the world: an infrastructure upon which anyone can create a communication space with as much or as little moderation as they like, invite anyone into it, and never face threat of being shut down. If that’s truly what Holochain offers, it might be seen as a savior by some and as quite dangerous by others. So, does it? Is Holochain the safe haven for uncensored, unmoderated communication that some hope and others fear it might be?

We’ll get to the answer in just a moment. First, we need to clear up a bit of confusion.

Holo and Holochain

We’ve heard some voices saying that if Parler were “hosted on Holo” none of this would be happening.

Holo is different from Holochain. Holo is a distributed hosting platform where anyone can host Holochain applications for users who are not running Holochain software themselves. By necessity, Holo has some centralized aspects, including domain name resolution, routing algorithms, and performance metrics used for matching hosts with applications. As a result, just like Amazon Web Services, Holo can shut down anything that is being hosted on its network, and in fact must prohibit illegal activity or face regulatory exposure as a service provider. So it’s false to say that Parler would not be subject to any oversight if it were hosted on Holo.

Holochain, by contrast, is a data engine that enables a web application to have its users host themselves as well as portions of the application’s shared data. Holochain is entirely peer-to-peer, completely lacking any centralized components that could be shut down. Users of Holochain don’t need permission from anyone to interact — not from an app store, not from a cloud server, not even from the internet’s gatekeepers (ISPs, nameservers, etc.) if the application were built to use non-internet protocols such as mesh or local networks.

The closest thing to a centralized component in Holochain is the free “bootstrapping” service that Holochain provides for apps, which enables users to “bootstrap” themselves into the network of an app when they run it for the first time, in order to locate and synchronize with that app’s peer network. But it’s entirely possible for a peer network to run its own bootstrapping service, in which case no one at Holochain would necessarily even know about the app existing at all, much less be able to intervene.

So as for whether it’s possible to use Holochain to create a communication space with little to no moderation that can never be shut down, the answer is yes, but it’s a qualified yes, for reasons we turn to next. As for whether Holochain can serve as an ideal safe haven for bad actors: not so much.

Unenclosability vs Anonymity

Holochain is designed to be unenclosable, which means that no one can stop any two or more people from interacting any way that they want, as long as their interactions are consistent with the rules of the app space they’ve voluntarily joined (and/or designed). If a given peer-to-peer application space has few or no rules around the kind of speech permitted, then anything goes in that space. Which is good news for free-speech advocates. That’s the ‘yes’ part of the qualified yes.

But that doesn’t mean people are protected from consequences. Unenclosability is different from anonymity and, by extension, from lack of accountability. Your app can’t get shut down, and maybe your app’s rules are such that nobody can be booted from it. However, in Holochain you’re digitally signing everything you do, which creates permanent evidence of your actions. That means, at the least, you could face social consequences for unsavory behavior. But you could also face legal consequences: if your computer were seized and your private keys found, that’s a pretty irrefutable link between your online persona and your real-life identity.

Holochain is not optimized for anonymity. It’s actually optimized for accountability.

Accountability and Provenance

At the risk of sounding promotional: the combination of unenclosability and accountability is one of the things that makes Holochain truly great. HolochainIt avoids the corruption-prone power imbalances of the centralized web, and it avoids the disinformation-prone free-for-alls of the anonymous web. Instead, it actually resembles communication in real life: you can say what you want, but expect that there may be consequences.

Maybe certain extremists or insurrectionists would prefer to have app spaces where they can organize anonymously and with complete freedom. But guess what? Not only is that dangerous; it’s not even really possible: if anyone can say anything to a lot of people without verifying its source and without consequence, you actually just have a noise machine, with little means of amplifying anything above anything else. You also have no means of filtering out floods of speech that are intended simply to overwhelm the space and drown out other speech.

Discerning Signal from Noise

To amplify signal over noise in a communication space, you need some combination of:

  1. Privacy: restricting who can join the space in the first place. Privacy limits reach. The more private a space, the more possible it is to say what you want without consequence, but you just might be saying it to only a handful of people (just like in your own home).
  2. Moderation, or curation: empowering a subset of people to determine what gets elevated into or hidden from the attention of others. Moderation limits freedom of speech. Highly moderated or curated spaces promote coherence and coordination of activity because they enable people to receive the most relevant information and, as needed, the same information as one another.
  3. Verifiability, or provenance: knowing where speech came from. Provenance limits anonymity. As people are made accountable for their actions (whether socially, economically, or legally), the quality of action goes up.

Holochain enables apps and their communities to dial in their own approaches to privacy and moderation: some spaces will favor relatively more signal in these regards, others relatively more reach and freedom. And these two values trade against each other to some extent: the more private a space, the less need for moderation or curation protocols, while more curated spaces don’t need to restrict reach as much. For example, your Facebook News Feed is more curated and less private, while content within Facebook Groups is less curated but more private.

Provenance, though, is not optional in Holochain apps. Even if you have a space of complete freedom where anyone can say what they want and reach a lot of people — which is too noisy in practice, but let’s say your space leans in that direction — it’s a feature of Holochain that, at the very least, you can’t falsely attribute speech, and you can’t alter speech once it’s been spoken. Holochain, at its core, is a data integrity engine: all communications are immutably bound to an author and timestamp.

In a world where broadcast technology is becoming ever cheaper and deep fakes are becoming ever easier, it’s essential that we develop better mechanisms to discern signal over noise, sort truth from disinformation, and promote good acting over bad. With Holochain’s emphasis on provenance and accountability while providing options for privacy and curation — all while running far more efficiently than blockchain — it’s an ideal framework for the development of those mechanisms.

And Holo, as a distributed hosting platform that enables anyone with a web browser to use Holochain apps, makes the data integrity of Holochain widely available immediately.

In case you haven’t been tracking its progress, the current version of Holochain is processing hundreds of thousands of gossip interactions per second for each Holochain app. This is many orders of magnitude faster than prior versions despite being bottlenecked through a single proxy just for testing purposes; as we deploy self-selection of proxies and DHT sharding over the next month, we expect to see even more leaps in performance. And Holo is currently rolling out the first Holochain apps running on its peer-hosting network.

Is Holochain a Safe Haven for Dangerous Extremists or a Beacon of Hope for Accountability? was originally published in Holochain on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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