Uncensorable News: Or how the Blockstream satellite became an essential source of information

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When Blockstream has decided to cut Bitcoin’s dependency on a ground-based and government-controlled internet connection by launching its communication satellites into space, it’s unlikely that they envisioned all the interesting use cases that people all around the world have found. While some individuals have chosen to send their thoughts to the entire world by doing daily blogs, others have found even more ingenious uses for the technology: sharing world news headlines with people living under oppressive regimes.

For several days now, pseudonymous American bitcoiner SafetyFirst (better known on Twitter as mononokeSnow) has been sharing relevant news articles with the rest of the world by using the Blockstream satellite. It all started as a simple experiment on March 12th 2019, and it evolved into a peculiar realization of power and importance. If anyone can use the satellite to broadcast messages without any kind of government censorship for a price as cheap as 500 satoshis, then why not help the rest of the world?

The feeling of being messaged by somebody after you send a hopeless message in space must be astounding. But when fellow bitcoiner Dr. Brian Goss (@_drgo) has confirmed the interception, the lonely feeling of experimentation was gone. If people using the satellite service get pinged and feel compelled to respond, then why not use it to inform those in need?

According to Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, digital authoritarianism is on the rise: the instances of government filtering and censorship have increased around the world, and even some of the most democratic countries have problems in protecting free speech and unrestricted access to information. There are polities where external sources are completely blocked to keep citizens under control, and this is exactly where the Blockstream satellite comes in handy. All that it takes is the initiative of a few brave pioneers who are the modern-day equivalent of Radio Free Europe (a radio station broadcasting news about the West in communist countries during the Cold War).

Nineteen Eighty-Four vs. immutable satellite news

The story of Winston Smith, as presented in George Orwell’s seminal novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, can still be found in multiple countries around the globe. North Korea, China, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey are just a few cases where free speech is discouraged and anti-governmental opinions get punished. The internet is the only mean through which citizens can keep in touch with the outside world, and this technological inconvenience often times gets adjusted according to the interests of the government of the land – as detailed in the Freedom House report.

Though George Orwell has written his book with the Stalin-era Soviet Union in mind, we can see how the authoritarian model is just as present as ever in many countries around the world. Winston Smiths try to beat the system every day by conducting investigative journalism, whistleblowing, or trying to cross state borders as means of attaining individual freedom and free speech. Sometimes information technology works in their favor, other times they get caught and suffer harsh punishments in various iterations of Room 101.

However, the Blockstream satellite (or any similar project that will serve the same function, for that matter) is a game changer because it requires no internet access. Dissidents, political activists, journalists, and even everyday people can send and receive messages that cannot be censored in the process or removed after their submission. Immutability of payments and uncensorability of messages have found a new purpose, and it’s admirable that people embrace their freedom by allowing the lesser fortunate ones access valuable resources.

The Winston Smith of 2019 doesn’t have to keep a notebook on which he writes his angsty diary, and doesn’t need to trust Mr. O’Brien with his political views, hoping that they would start a revolutionary movement. With a mesh antenna, a computer, and the knowledge required to access the Blockstream Satellite API, personal diaries can become worldwide blogs that raise awareness on issues. And if the Ministry of Truth decides what and when Winston should be reading, American bitcoiner SafetyFirst makes a list of the most important headlines and broadcasts them to all the Smiths who are desperately trying to make sense out of the domestic authoritarian policies.

Is immutable news broadcasting the future?

Outside the scope of informing citizens living in authoritarian regimes about the latest world news, one can also find a secondary purpose in the satellite project: keeping headlines unchanged for the rest of history. Beyond the Orwellian framework, we must also think about the ways in which news pieces often get removed according to the will of those in government. Even in the European Union, GDPR guarantees the right to be forgotten, which means that anyone can request for internet content to get removed in order to get a clean slate.

Journalists are the world’s first historians, and it’s thanks to their contribution that we are able to get a broader picture of past events. Even though the victors tend to push the narrative, it’s the courageous work of countless news writers and reporters that helps us understand the complexities of our world and how decisions have been made. But under the provisions of GDPR, which seem to get traction even outside of the European Union, lots of events can get removed from archives with the click of a button. Though some individuals can benefit from this advantage in benevolent ways, the gates of revisionist hell have been open for many future tyrants to hide their bloody past.

In this regard, storing headlines (and possibly news articles) on an immutable blockchain which also syncs with a politically-neutral satellite can be a great (yet very expensive) idea. But envisioning a Bitcoin sidechain whose sole purpose is that of keeping unfiltered and immutable news articles isn’t such a bad idea. Throughout history, books have been burnt, archives have been compromised, and pictures have been edited to distort reality and facts. Thanks to the immutability of public blockchains like Bitcoin’s, we can more easily follow the laws of nature and make information as permanent as the force of gravity. However, the process would be costly and difficult to maintain – and perhaps it will take quite a few years until we have the proper means to make it all happen. But if we do get immutable blockchain news, then we should also start thinking about archiving the world libraries in a similar ecosystem.

Crypto Insider has contacted satellite enthusiasts Safety First (@mononokeSnow) and Dr. Goss (@_drgo), as well as Blockstream CSO Samson Mow in order to provide comments on the phenomenon. At press time, there was no reply – but the article will get updated to include every contribution.

Edit 1 – SafetyFirst, the American bitcoiner who started the initiative of sending world news to authoritarian countries, has said the following:

My comment would be that through the use of Lightning we can now send news and important info to people in authoritarian parts of the world, even if they don’t have internet or cellular service. I would also like to thank Pierre Rochard for making this so easy. Thank you so much for taking the time to take interest in my hobby. I just love broadcasting through the Blockstream satellites, as it feels like the cyberpunk future we have all been waiting for.

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

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