Bitcoin at the epicenter of the battle for free speech.
A number of online crowdfunding sites and wallet providers have been embroiled in controversy after a series of high-profile account cancellations associated with alt- and far-right views. Although the move to “deplatform” those seen to be allegedly promoting hate speech has received popular support, several high-profile political commentators and libertarian media personalities consider this to constitute and unacceptable assault on free speech.
As a result, some of the online crowdfunding platform Patreon’s top content creators decided to leave the platform in favor of Bitcoin funding, each taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in monthly revenue. As the furore surrounding payment platforms and their decision to cancel controversial accounts continues, Cointelegraph takes a closer look at what role crypto plays in what is being portrayed as the latest battleground for the freedom of speech.
Rubin deletes Patreon
On Jan. 16, American political commentator Dave Rubin became the latest high-profile public figure to delete his account with the online crowdfunding platform Patreon. Rubin appeared in a live video on his YouTube channel in which he reiterated his prior support for controversial online polemicist Carl Benjamin, also known as Sargon of Akkad, stating that his account cancelation was one of the most important factors in his decision to move from Patreon to Bitcoin funding:
“The fact that this has even been going down on Patreon related to freedom of speech, it was because of them kicking off Carl Benjamin, Sargon of Akkad, who has been in this very studio. It seems so fitting that we’re going to finally do this.
“When I started talking about it everyone said you’ve got to talk to Carl Benjamin, you’ve got to talk to Sargon of Akkad. It seems sort of fitting that the first guy I talked to online about this is the one who got booted, who’s now caused me to leave this. And we’re taking control of our destiny and all that good stuff.”
Although Rubin initially found fame as a stand up comedian, he has become more widely known as an advocate for libertarian values such as freedom of speech. In spite of his claims to earn “between 60-70 percent” of his income through Patreon, Rubin said that his decision to switch to Bitcoin constituted “a stand against the ever-moving encroachment on free speech, on free expression” that he perceives to be taking place across mainstream funding platforms.
“I don’t think a normal businessman would say can I just get rid of 70 percent of my company’s revenue and we’ll see what happens. I just feel like it [Benjamin’s banning] was just enough.”
Rubin further commented on what he considers to be an orchestrated affront on liberty and a campaign of enforced censorship being carried out by tech companies:
“This seems like the next obvious step in everything that’s been going on here. I just think that at some point, us, the people, have to push back against these tech companies. You can’t keep on infringing on the freedom of expression. Yes, they can do whatever they want at private companies and there’s some issue as to whether these platforms are becoming the true public space of the future and what’s the relationship between that entity and a platform that we can all communicate on and the government.”
Rubin’s video also contained the announcement that he plans to launch his own funding platform with fellow online commentator and clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson:
“Also, the key to this whole thing is that Jordan and I are also working on a new platform. There’s a limit to the amount that I can tell you, for legal reasons. I can’t give away all the secrets and the keys to the kingdom just yet. We’re working on another platform. There are huge, huge questions in relation to how we want this platform to function. Should it be monetized through crypto, should we be doing torrent video streaming, how can it be fully protected so that we don’t have to worry about payment processors, so we don’t have to worry about tech companies taking us down? As crazy as that is, all I’m doing here is exercising free speech. I like interviewing people, I enjoy having good conversation and all these things. Jordan and I are working on that, there’s a company formed. We’re working on that. Today is step one. Step one for me is get off Patreon and let's move everybody.”
Peterson was also among the group of content creators that vowed to leave Patreon on the grounds of free speech. In spite of reportedly earning $80,000 per month through the platform, Peterson also recently deleted his Patreon account.
Rubin first announced his intention to switch to Bitcoin in early January. Members of the crypto community responded enthusiastically to Rubin’s announcement and were quick to respond with practical advice for the transition. At time of publication, Rubin’s Bitcoin wallet has received a total of 0.8119261 BTC.
No more gifts for Gab
The controversial social media platform Gab is one of the most prominent sites to be shut down in the name of monitoring hate speech. In January, the company’s official Twitter account reported that its corporate account with the United States crypto exchange and wallet service provider Coinbase had been terminated. In early January, the merchant and personal accounts of Gab co-founder Andrew Torba were also shut down.
As predicted: the on ramps and off ramps (exchanges) are going to start censoring not only companies, but also individuals. @coinbase has now banned both Gab's merchant account and Andrew Torba's personal account.
Decentralized exchanges are the future. pic.twitter.com/LXkjblrdgu
— Gab.com (@getongab) January 4, 2019
Gab describes itself on its website as a “social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online. All are welcome.” However, the social network quickly earned itself a more sinister reputation as an echo chamber for alt- and far-right views. Gab faced intense public scrutiny after it was revealed that Robert Gregory Bowers, the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, had reportedly laid bare his intentions to harm people via posts on the social media network prior to the crime.
Following this, mainstream funding platforms such as PayPal and Stripe terminated their relationship with the company. Bitpay, a payment processor that uses cryptocurrency, also decided that hosting the organization presented a high level of risk and would consequently no longer be able to provide their services.
The company’s latest attempt to find a platform through which to receive funding also ended in failure. On Jan. 6, Gab’s official Twitter handle tweeted that their account with Square’s Cash App had been blocked, along with the personal account of Andrew Torba. After a delay of about 20 minutes, the company published another tweet.
Yes, we know who owns Square. We realize our accounts have been blocked for unknown reasons.
Cash App is still the easiest and fastest way to buy bitcoin on a mobile device. That’s still a net positive for bitcoin and freedom in our book.
They can’t ban everyone.
— Gab.com (@getongab) January 8, 2019
Media sources emphasized the role of Gab’s reputation in its lack of success in establishing a long-term relationship with a payments processor.
Throughout January, the company has taken to Twitter in a bid to assure viewers that its core values were in line with their own, presenting Bitcoin as a way of bringing about “freedom from central banks, financial censorship, and a rigged financial system.”
In recent weeks, the organization has repeatedly said that support for Bitcoin is one of the company’s three pillars — “maximalism” concerning free speech, Bitcoin and freedom, again hammering home a new style of self-promotion in an effort to distance itself from the proliferation of hate speech that brought it to the limelight:
“Unapologetic free speech maximalist. Unapologetic bitcoin maximalist. Unapologetic freedom maximalist. But I repeat myself.”
The company’s search for a funding platform continues and stated on its website that it is “the most censored, smeared, and no-platformed startup in history.”
As mainstream platforms close their doors, crypto alternatives fill the gaps in the market
Companies and individuals alike have been quick to distance themselves from the controversial social media site. However, on Jan. 5, the Bisq network appeared to promote its services in the wake of the account terminations:
“If Bitcoin allows you to “be your own bank,” Bisq allows you to “be your own exchange.” YOU run Bisq on YOUR own machine and trade Bitcoin P2P. Censorship-resistance by design, not policy. Gatekeepers have no business being in bitcoin. Let’s shun them!”
Steve Jain, a contributor to the Bisq project who focuses on communications, spoke to Cointelegraph about Gab’s banning and the move to crypto funding:
“I don't follow Gab too closely, and I don't use their service, but they're very good at marketing so I usually end up seeing their headlines or tweets anyway. And I recall seeing headlines throughout the past several months about them being banned from the most major payment processors. So I don't think they were left with a choice — Bitcoin cannot ban you. It's a natural move for them.”
Jain also mentioned that the concern about payment platform censorship is not contained to those associated with the far-right alone, explaining that crypto is principally democratic in its design:
“Significant damage is already done. Many people (especially those who tend to stray away from mainstream politics) have known for a while that something strange was happening on the major platforms, but most such accounts were anecdotal. These recent developments are concrete realizations of many people’s suspicions that the big companies don't necessarily operate with consistent principles. It's not that Bitcoin won't ban you because it's so nice and principled — it can't. This immutable finality is part of what Bitcoin brings to the table that no other human-managed service can ever possibly bring.”
When asked whether Bisq is looking to capitalize on disgruntled Patreon users by retweeting Gab’s account termination notice, Jain was quick to emphasize that Bisq is “more of a platform for people to exchange Bitcoin for national currencies, so there isn't much of a way for it to directly provide help to disgruntled Patreon users.” However, Jain did not rule out the possibility of ex-Patreon service users including Bisq in their future plans to build a more democratic payment platform:
“I have, however, heard of some people looking to start Patreon alternatives powered by Bisq, where (I guess) Bisq would act as a tool to exchange dollars for Bitcoin that cannot be censored. Recently we've made some great progress on the Bisq API, and I (for one) would love to see Bisq power such services.”
In spite of the circumstances in which websites like Gab and individuals such as Sargon of Akkad are turning to cryptocurrency funding because they have no choice, Jain maintains that this does not compromise the core principles of cryptocurrencies themselves:
“Peer-to-peer trading is merely the digital equivalent of you and I trading Bitcoin for USD in person. You bring the Bitcoin, and I bring the USD. We trade. Face-to-face, peer-to-peer. It doesn't matter who you are, and it doesn't matter who I am. All that matters is that we each hold up our ends of the deal. No BS. If that's not ethical, I don't know what is!
“I would argue it's the introduction of third parties that adds all kinds of complications and stipulations and liabilities and ethical considerations.”
U.K. far-right feels the squeeze as prominent figures are stripped of funding
The United Kingdom has also witnessed a number of account terminations connected to the far-right, with banned individuals turning to crypto as a last resort. On Jan. 17, YouTube demonetized the account of U.K.-based far-right extremist Tommy Robinson after alleged breaches of the site’s advertising guidelines. The YouTube clampdown on the founder of the English Defence League, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the latest in a series of bans for the activist, brought about by pressure put on crowdfunding companies by members of the public.
Robinson has also faced bans on a number of other platforms, including both Twitter and PayPal. The far-right activist’s PayPal account was terminated in November after the company stated that they “do not allow PayPal services to be used to promote hate, violence, or other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory.” Robinson’s ban was preceded by an online petition to remove him from the platform that gathered thousands of signatures, drawing attention to his past actions of “stirring up racist violence with online content.” As Robinson’s options for fundraising via traditional platforms are being removed one by one, the activist has turned to crypto in a last-ditch attempt to secure funding for his controversial activities.
Around the time of his arrest and imprisonment for contempt of court in 2018, Robinson received around 20,000 British pounds (roughly $25,777) in Bitcoin, including a donation of 5,500 pounds (~$7,088) on the day of his detention. The success of Robinson’s online fundraising has sparked a series of copycat activists, all of whom proclaim to be defenders of the freedom of speech and encourage supporters to donate to their cause.
U.K.-based commentator on far-right politics Mike Stuchbery spoke to Cointelegraph about the tendency for far-right groups to shift to crypto after mainstream funding platforms terminate their accounts:
“Far Right groups are slowly having their sources of income taken from them as activists target payment processors such as PayPal and Stripe, rather than calling for the banning of groups in their totality. Far Right groups are also finding themselves 'deplatformed' from mainstream social media and video platforms. They are, therefore, either creating their own alternatives to these platforms – Gab, Minds, Bitchute – or are looking at other, decentralized alternatives to disseminating their ideas.”
Stuchbery commented that while the arrest and jailing of Tommy Robinson acted as a catalyst for the shift to Bitcoin, the circumstances created a reputational crisis for crypto funding in general:
“The jailing of 'Tommy Robinson' saw cryptocurrencies being considered a viable alternative to normal banking for the first time. Over the space of a few days, mainstream media reported 'Tommy' receiving thousands of pounds worth of Bitcoin to his official wallet, and more sent to others collecting in his name.The tone of the reporting did seem to be negative in approach – somehow implying the criminality of cryptocurrency transactions, a stigma that still exists.”
In contrast to the Libertarian free-speech rhetoric of individuals such as Dave Rubin and Dr. Jordan Peterson, Stuchbery believes that companies can and should exercise the ability to ban accounts for the promotion of hate speech:
“Platforms can exercise free speech without legitimizing hate speech by being clear and transparent in explaining why they chose to remove somebody from a service, clearing linking it to a violation of the Terms of Service. They can also regularly survey or gather users together to discuss their Terms of Service and answer questions from the community relating to their policies.
“I'm reluctant to call for the blanket banning of those who engage in hate speech on social media – not only does it set a problematic precedent, but as we have seen, the Far Right is able to skillfully turn such calls into a Free Speech debate.
“That said, 'deplatforming' does work – look at what's happened to Richard Spencer and Alex Jones. Their reach has been totally curtailed by their removal from social media platforms and has resulted in the tempering of their rhetoric as they seek a return.”
Wikileaks’ financial bottleneck
Far-right and libertarian organizations are not the only groups on the political spectrum that found themselves out in the cold after losing favor with Coinbase. On April 20, the merchandising branch of anonymous international publishing nonprofit Wikileaks, Wikileaks Shop, reported via Twitter that their Coinbase account had been blocked.
The tweet portrays an alleged email screen grab from the U.S wallet provider stating that the organization was in contradiction to their Terms of Service.
Following the cancellation, Wikileaks called for a “global blockade of Coinbase,” stating that it is an unfit member of the crypto community and encouraged supporters to donate via Bitcoin. The organization also hinted at its belief that the action was officially sanctioned by an unnamed authority.
In spite of Wikileaks Shop’s struggle with Coinbase, Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, publicly thanked the U.S. government for forcing the organization into using Bitcoin as its primary source of income, resulting in a 50,000 percent return. As a result, the organization is now openly bullish on cryptocurrencies, accepting Litecoin, Monero and ZCash alongside Bitcoin for donations.