During the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many economic and political measures. One of the most unfortunate ones is censorship of the Internet.
NetBlocks, a “civil society group working at the intersection of digital rights, cyber-security and internet governance”, reported on strange Internet outages in Wuhan during certain nights when the COVID-19 epidemic was starting to gather steam. The Farsi version of Wikipedia was blocked for about 24 hours in Iran.
VPN company Surfshark reported that its VPN infrastructure in Iran was seeing a dropoff of 50% in connection rate after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 13th. Their cybersecurity advisor Naomi Hedges claims “that since 13 March – when [COVID-19] was labeled as a pandemic – Surfshark’s connection rates in Iran have dropped by 50%. Meanwhile, our website traffic from Iran has decreased fivefold of its usual rate. Before the announcement, we haven’t experienced notable fluctuations in Iran’s connectivity rates, so the numbers indicate the increased attempts to censor the internet.”
It comes amid reports that China too is clamping on access to the Internet outside the Great Firewall, with VPN providers and connections under strain. Chinese social media networks such as WeChat have also been reported to have censored COVID-19 related terms since December 31st — in a notable incident, Dr. Li Wenliang was censured by the Wuhan police for posting about COVID-19 in a private WeChat group.
This is a threat that many cryptocurrency and Bitcoin advocates are aware of. The Internet itself is a protocol Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies depend on in order to communicate data. If the Internet is shut down or content within it is filtered/blocked, peers within a certain country would not be able to communicate with one another effectively.
If content is being censored or tracked, cryptocurrency miners and peers within a country could see their connectivity attempts to the global network be denied, effectively shuttering their ability to transact and to get the global status of the Bitcoin network.
It’s why Blockstream has tried to diversify away Bitcoin from its dependency on an uncensored Internet by launching a satellite network that broadcasts data from the Bitcoin blockchain and any other data people choose to pay to upload through the Lightning Network.
This makes the cost of censoring Bitcoin and other information more expensive: nation-states go from needing to cut off domestic broadband communications to having to deploy kinetic force in space — an option few countries have access to, and which would be politically unenvious even for the boldest of political leaders.
Beyond just the blunt question of on/off censorship however, cryptocurrencies and their relationship to the Internet at large pose interesting dilemmas. As central banks look more and more at digitizing their currencies and the legal attitude towards digital privacy is being redefined by COVID-19, broad changes may threaten
Centralized digital currencies will have access to lots of metadata associated per each account, including possible location data, that can be tracked and compiled.
This may be necessary in a pandemic, but in general, governments who gain hard-fought emergency powers are loath to return them. The post-9/11 period saw a spate of renewals of the authorization of military force and Patriot Act, stretched to give cover to different government powers until reform only came more than a decade later. This fact led Edward Snowden to warn that “temporary” surveillance powers may well outlast the COVID-19 pandemic.
As governments look to respond to COVID-19, some will look to censor the Internet and some will look to use digital tools to track their population during the crisis period, perhaps with long-lasting consequences. Both have the potential for abuse, and both pose different but ever-present threats for cryptocurrencies and our liberty at large.
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