CoinDesk columnist Nic Carter is a partner of Castle Island Ventures, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based venture capital fund that focuses on public blockchains. He is also co-founder of Coin Metrics, a blockchain analysis startup.
There are, to put it in a simplistic way, two schools of thought on the subject of property rights on internet platforms. The first one goes something like this:
Systems like Facebook, Twitter, Google and others are private platforms, managed and administered by companies, and these entities can control the content of these platforms as they see fit. This extends to prohibition, censorship, arbitrary removal of content, modification, etc. None of these Internet oligopolies “owe anyone a platform” and they have no obligation to amplify particular voices. If you don’t like it, create an alternative and compete in the open market.
Although this is by far the most popular opinion expressed on the subject, you may very occasionally hear an alternative dissenting opinion. It goes like this:
Internet oligopolies are not just “social media platforms”. These are new alternative jurisdictions where users settle and establish social and commercial relationships. Although they are not physically instantiated, they are real places, with all the considerations that this implies. The conditions of service in these digital borders are in fact legal systems, although poorly codified and inexplicable. What users do when they grab handles and build reputations and social graphics on these systems is create property. So censorship, de-platform, etc. must be understood as an eminent domain and an expropriation, rather than as a banal application of the rules.
Elaine Ou, Allen Farrington and Balaji Srinivasan, Facebook, Twitter, et al., Didn’t really create all the content on their platforms, nor do they really own it. Instead, they define a namespace that users occupy, develop and, in some cases, market. Users, not administrators, create the vast majority of value, and as such are the legitimate owners of their digital property. & Nbsp; “data-reactid =” 26 “> Under this alternative view, adopted by thinkers like Elaine Ou, Allen Farrington and Balaji Srinivasan, Facebook, Twitter, and others, didn’t really create all of the content on their platforms, or really own it. Instead, they define a namespace that users occupy, develop, and in some cases market. Users, not administrators, create the vast majority of value, and as that they are the legitimate owners of their digital property.
Capital Mystery. ”) Initially, large tracts of land were claimed mainly by states and absent landowners. Over time, the squatters were able to make a convincing claim that they had invested enough labor in their properties to legally ratify their informal claims. On the Internet, claiming property rights has proven to be more difficult, giving rise to our current reality where content creators are providers rather than owners. & Nbsp; “data-reactid =” 27 “> You might think this is crazy. But in a sense the squatters claiming their property rights against an authority claiming coverage would not be new. It was the legal struggle that brought defined the history of the American continent. (For a complete treatment, see chapter five of Hernando De Soto’s Mystery of Capital. “) Initially, large tracts of land were claimed mainly by states and absent landowners. Over time, the squatters were able to make a convincing claim that they had invested enough labor in their properties to legally ratify their informal claims. ownership has proven more difficult, giving rise to our current reality where content creators are providers rather than owners.
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Censorship led by China is a key design feature, clearly demonstrated that these systems are powerful power projection tools. And the consolidation of Internet platforms into static oligopolies – Facebook and Google jointly control at least 60% of the digital advertising market – contradicted the theory that users can simply move elsewhere. “Data-reactid =” 30 “> The default story has been hit a few times in recent times. The increase in more intrusive fact-checking on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram has called into question their neutrality. The emphasis on algorithmic content preservation rather than linear chronologies allows the architects of these systems to choose winners and losers, thereby selectively stimulating the topics of their choice. Is a key design feature, clearly shown that these systems are powerful tools for power projection. And the consolidation of Internet platforms into static oligopolies – Facebook and Google jointly control at least 60% of the digital advertising market – has contradicted the theory that users can just go elsewhere.
Faced with this overt politicization of supposedly neutral platforms, the theory of digital property rights which emphasizes the primacy of the individual (i.e. the second point of view) seems much more attractive. But what exactly are the moral grounds on which individuals can formalize a claim to their digital property? Lockean’s theory (see Elaine Ou above) postulates that mixing one’s work with an unallocated natural resource – for example, tilling the soil and cultivating crops – gives an individual the right to property over this property. The most controversial element of Locke’s theory is that enclosing certain lands for the purpose of creating property is morally acceptable if that enclosure does not disadvantage anyone else. To use Locke’s words:
Now, if you consider the border with the United States, the closure process involved the forced eviction of the local Native American population, so the reserve seems problematic at best in this context. But in the context of the post-scarcity digital border, the Locke reserve has weight: the creation of an account on Twitter hardly disadvantages anyone. By creating a new infinitely stretchable border, there is an unequivocal moral argument for the closure and allocation of goods, without the precondition of violence.
I don’t expect the vision of the properties of digital platforms to be convincing for everyone. Even so, it works well descriptively. Instead of accepting the frayed default view, you can just start imagining all the internet platforms that exist today as a constellation of digital nations, each with its own legal code and with different levels of respect for property. users.
Claiming property rights on the Internet has proven to be more difficult, giving rise to our current reality where content creators are providers rather than owners.
Unfortunately, property rights on the largest platforms are both poorly codified (the conditions of use are crazy quicksand, arbitrarily punishing the behavior of users, implemented by non-responsible bureaucrats) and notoriously weak. Users cannot easily extract their social graphs and subscribers if they choose to leave; they find themselves deprived of their goods of commercial and social value at any time without any recourse and they cannot influence the decision-making. To make a political analogy, virtually all of these digital worlds function as pre-democratic feudal regimes, each participant being a digital servant who plows the land at the whim and discretion of a capricious feudal lord.
well established that something as basic as a legal philosophy (for example, the presence of common law versus civil law) has far-reaching implications for economic growth. And thanks to De Soto, we know that giving people the ability to formalize a claim to a property they own is the genesis of a productive and healthy capitalism. It goes without saying that the first platform to carefully codify the rules and give users solid guarantees on their property will gain market share. “Data-reactid =” 44 “> Understood this way, it’s clear that today’s largest Internet platforms are taking an unsustainable approach to digital governance. If the administrators of these systems were looking to the future, they would seek to stabilize the legal structure of their systems and to state clearly the rights of the users, because nobody wants to be based on a changing base. It is well established. that something as fundamental as a legal philosophy ( for example, the presence of common law versus civil law) has profound implications for economic growth. And thanks to De Soto, we know that giving people the ability to formalize a claim to a property they own is the genesis of a productive and healthy capitalism. It goes without saying that the first platform to carefully codify the rules and give users solid guarantees on their property will gain market share.
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infiltrate and co-opt these companies constitute an urgent and active priority for state actors. “data-reactid =” 46 “> Popular internet platforms most likely cannot make this transition. They exist in a very real political context and are forced to follow local laws and intervene in political disputes by prohibiting in a way selective individuals and mitigating certain subjects. Given that internet platforms give governments almost infinite leverage in speech control, the infiltration and cooptation of these companies is an urgent and active priority for actors state.
We wonder if alternatives to these poor quality systems are emerging. The good news is that some diligent entrepreneurs have been pursuing this vision for some time now. In 2009, a group of cypherpunks created a freely and fairly issued user-defined property system in which ownership was based on their knowledge of cryptographic secrets. The ledger slots meant nothing, but they came to have financial value – because society unsurprisingly cherished a system of ownership independent of the state and the oligarchs. In a sense, Bitcoin offers some of the strongest protections ever designed for digital property, bypassing state rules and making it extremely difficult to impose eminent domain, confiscation of civil property, inflation, censorship and other forms of implicit and explicit seizure.
Other manufacturers have been inspired by the treatment of Bitcoin property rights, considering systems in which the knowledge of a private key is the arbiter of identity, instead of an entry in the database. a megacorp from Silicon Valley. This is the idea that underlines the Web 3.0 movement, which has stagnated since its popularization in 2017/18. But the concept is deep: equip users to formalize their own social graph and link a reputation to an online entity with the absolute right to withdraw or migrate if they are abused by their local platform administrator. The precise form it will take is unclear. But it’s an idea whose time has come.