On the 14th of April, the official community kick-off meeting for Arweave Build program took place. A couple of dozens of pixelated avatars in Gather Town from all around the globe.
Arweave Build represents the latest initiative to offer funds for new developers who want to code on Arweave. It complements existing programs like Open Web Foundry and relatively new funding efforts made public by ventures like Huobi Incubator and SevenX. Its aim is simple:
“BUILD A PERMAWEB APP, WE’LL INVEST $100K”.
Each step made by a new project, from its “hello world” landing page to the MVP, to the first couple hundred users of the project, will be rewarded accordingly.
On the same day, in Vancouver, Elon Musk talked in an interview held by Chris Anderson, the head of TED, about his vision regarding Twitter. At the time of writing, it had over 7 million views. (You can watch it here, go to minute 10 if you want to see the part about Twitter)
This was just a part of the neverending saga revolving around Elon Musk and Twitter. On and on, people debated whether Musk would become the champion of decentralization and free speech through (paradoxically) further strengthening the centralization around Twitter, or not.
Why bring the Twitter story in an article about Arweave Build? Well, it’s not about explaining what’s happening with Musk and the birdie. (he bought it, we all know it now) It’s about comparing two speeches held on the same day, roughly about the same topic.
Arweave’s event showcased a new funding program for its community members (so it was about money, too) and started with Sam Williams’s presentation about the particularities of building Permaweb apps. As in Musk’s interview, a vision is explained, and the financial means of doing it are presented. The similarities end here.
Musk declared that by acquiring Twitter, he would bolster free speech. Arweave is offering money for building applications that guarantee free speech by design.
At this point, one can argue that almost all the public blockchains provide this feature. Yes and no. Almost all are indeed offering the guarantee of the truth for what is written on the blockchain. Still, the storage limitations of both technical and cost constraints render most of them inefficient at being true guardians of free speech.
Anyway, if you want to elude my subjective takes, you should pause your reading here and just see both recordings. Musk’s is available in the link above, and Arweave’s event can be accessed here.(Access it starting from minute 5)
Musk’s vision of empowering free speech
Besides the inevitable grandeur that comes bundled with the ability to muster over 40 billion $ in a week, the main points of Musk’s case are as follows.
Asked why he wants to buy Twitter:
I think it’s very important for there to be an inclusive arena for free speech […] One of the things I think Twitter should do is to open source the algorithm […] so people should see there is no sort of behind the scenes manipulation […] The intent is to retain as many shareholders as is allowed by the law in a private company – which I think is around 2000 or so. […] This is not a way to make money […] My strong, intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization. I don’t care about economics at all.
Asked about the extent to which his “free speech absolutism” will be reflected in the policies of his own Twitter version:
Obviously, Twitter in any form is bound by the laws of the country that it operates in, so, there are obviously some limitations on free speech in the US, and of course, further, we’ll have to abide by those […]
Pressed on explaining how the moderation via human agents will take place:
If in doubt, let the speech exist […] I’m not saying that I have all the answers here […] I want to be very reluctant on to delete things, and just be very cautious with permanent bans […] a good sign if there is free speech is if someone you don’t like is allowed to say something you don’t like, and if that is the case, then we have free speech.
Asked about how he, from the posture of the richest man alive, could guarantee that he would not interfere with people’s free speech:
Like I said, I think that it is very important that the algorithm should be open-sourced and that the manual adjustments be identified, like when somebody has done something to a tweet, its information attached to it to certify that that action was taken.
As for the edit button and other functionalities he foresees:
A top priority I have is eliminating the spammers and scam bots […] I think that you should have edit capabilities for short periods of time, and probably on editing, you’ll zero out all retweets and favorites. I’m open to ideas, though.
I will be blunt. For a visionary, it seems that there is not much vision involved. His thesis is that Twitter became the public square space by excellence. Subsequently, acquiring it, making its algorithms public, and introducing a more relaxed moderating policy (to an extent that is still unclear even for him) will magically turn Twitter into a bastion for freedom of speech.
First of all, none of the Web2 social-media companies will ever become true promoters of freedom of speech because of their inherent design flaws (we’ll talk more about it in the next section). Acquiring Twitter now is like acquiring My Space in 2007. In the coming years, social networks will thrive mainly on Web3. Not only will it grant public repositories by default, but it will come with code immutability and ultimate censorship resistance.
Secondly, the battle is not with greedy or incompetent boards, and the fix won’t come from a single knight in shining armor. The struggle for freedom of speech will be carried out with regulators. For example, take each legal definition of freedom of speech. They are usually split into two paragraphs. Let’s take the European example ’cause I find it quite compelling; the first paragraph is full of promises:
Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. Excellent, but then comes the second one: The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions, or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary for a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Lots of subjective angles are left open for interpretation.
Just to be clear, I believe in the rule of law, but I also believe that the laws should be questioned and not followed blindly. Laws, in general, are subject to change and are made by individuals. A country seen today as a beacon of liberty could become an oppressive regime in a couple of years.
Historically, almost all the advances made in society were made through the struggle between citizens and the establishment. That doesn’t mean that the establishment is evil. It means that it just tends to try and conserve the status quo. There is little difference between the suffragettes of the early 20th century and the promoters of decentralized networks of today in terms of claiming new laws that will enforce a reality dismissed by authorities.
The truth is that all the speeches out there should be free by default. Imagine a big data dump where everyone can express themselves. On top of that data dump, you can have different gateways, news outlets, or social media apps that organize that data and transform it into your desired informational feed. You will choose what you want to see and who you want to believe, but in the process, you won’t kill the view of others. Even if they are presumably faulty, let the researchers of the future decide upon it.
How free speech is empowered by Permaweb
Meanwhile, on the other side of the internet, we were sitting on benches made of bytes listening to something else: an explanation of why anybody should consider building on Arweave.
In his effort to explain as simple as possible the relevance of building applications on top of Arweave, Sam Williams, the co-founder of Arweave, gave the perfect case for how free speech could be enforced at the protocol layer. Arweave proposes a paradigm shift for the entire web through data permanence, while Musk presents a new version for a single application from the whole web. Let’s see what Sam had to say:
The characteristics of data permanence are not exactly what you would expect. It means that, yes, the information is there forever, but what it really means is that it changes the relationship of control between humans and the information we have access to. So, in the space of web applications, it means that you can build applications that have no controller, so when you launch the application itself, it is out in the world and anyone can access it in that form, without you, the developer being able to change it, and that meant that the experience with that application is fundamentally different in a bunch a different ways, but one of them is that you can avoid a situation where there is a centralized censor of that application. […]
As painful as it is for the ego of the wealthiest individual, not all issues can be addressed solely by messianic interventions. The path through free speech is the opposite of what Musk is trying to achieve: you don’t have to own the public square. On the contrary, you have to devise a way that nobody truly owns it. Of course, you can be genuinely sincere when you say that you won’t monopolize the speech that will happen in your yard, but keep in mind that being your yard means that a government can press you to change the rules.
Internet censorship is a fundamental problem. What the protocols of the internet have done is centralize power over the experience of content on the network in the hands of companies. They did this because along the way, in an attempt to capture the value of the application they were creating, the protocols just happened to force the accumulation of power. When you look at TCP/IP […] you are essentially, when you are going to a website, being pointed to a place on earth, a single location. The thing about locations is that they have to be owned by someone. You are accessing a server which is owned by a person, and that person, of course, gets to choose what’s on that server, and that is just the nature of the protocols. An effect of that is that power is concentrated in the hands of the person, whoever that is, that owns those physical locations. There’s really no way around this [in the current setup]. That has meant that our experience over the internet is that we are at the whim of corporations everywhere. It is like there are no public spaces. Everywhere is a private space. With the Permaweb we can change that because the Permaweb says to address things by not just the content but also the metadata, but let’s do so in a fashion where that data is replicated in many, many different places so that we can always get access to it, no matter what one of those people or one of those private locations decides.
In the case of free speech, we are bound to create ways that will force the states to accept a new reality, one in which they don’t own the narrative, rather than blatantly submitting to their will. Arweave, like any other public blockchain, offers incentives for creating a worldwide network of peers that will store the same information. There are nodes in China; there are nodes in Europe, Russia, the US, etc. Good luck in shutting them all!
The difference between Arweave and the rest of the blockchains lies in the capacity of Arweave to store vast loads of data directly on-chain, and not only readable data as files but whole applications.
After hearing Musk’s pledge, I just wondered if he truly knew about the existence of Arweave and its capabilities? Otherwise, why should he buy a company with an amount that is 40x the current market cap of Arweave, only to be constrained by the regulations of literally all the governments? He repeatedly stated that it is not about the money, so the already 400 million user base has nothing to do with his decision, right?
Anyway, to wrap it up: if you are reading this, there is an almost zero chance of being Elon Musk or having his wealth. Still, you have a relatively higher chance to create an application that will bolster free speech more than his current endeavor by joining Arweave Build. And if you are Elon Musk, you have some excellent ideas, but there are still some rough edges. If you had chosen to join Arweave Build, the community would have helped you figure them out, and who knows, maybe you would have received some funding too.