In Venezuela, Blockchain’s Promises Are Put to the Test

Can decentralization help solve this struggling nation’s problems?

By Alissa Fleck  

Venezuela’s government is no stranger to stanching the public flow of information in periods of crisis. It’s not shocking, then, that amid the recent military unrest in Caracas, the country is facing a social media brownout, according to NetBlocks, a civil society group focused on digital access.

Along with testing the ability of the government to hold onto power, the latest crisis is also a case study of blockchain’s potential to provide open channels of communication for those impacted by the government’s internet blocks.  

The partial internet shutdown — which has been found to extend to Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Wikipedia and potentially more sites — takes place amid an intense political standoff between the United States and Venezuela. The Trump administration recently declared Juan Gaido, leader of the opposition against interim-president Nicolas Maduro, the official, U.S.-recognized president. Gaido has criticized Maduro as a “usurper.”

The move precipitated a swift official backlash against the U.S. by the Maduro government, including a call for the Trump administration to withdraw its diplomats from the country within 72 hours. Russia has also demanded that the U.S. cease its interventions in the oil-rich South American country. The U.S. has not complied with Maduro’s order.

Partial internet shutdowns are frequently used to control the flow of information and exert control over vulnerable populations, and are widely considered a human rights violation. Despite the spread of modern digital communications, internet shutdowns are increasing at a dramatic rate around the world, according to data collected by AccessNow’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP).

Blockchain may be able to restore some power to the people. Consider Peepeth, which dubs itself “the values platform” and encourages mindful engagement. According to Peepeth’s website, all accounts and posts (“peeps”) are stored on the Ethereum blockchain, giving users exclusive control of all content and making peeps openly stored and publicly accessible forever. The service also provides the ability to create and interact with other smart contracts and allow users to start their own “front-end interface[s] that read and write Peepeth data.”

Similarly, an application like blockchain-based BitTube could serve as an alternative means of disseminating information in the face of censorship and propaganda. In fact, platforms like BitTube have seen an influx of users from “controversial YouTubers” who feel they’re being censored on more mainstream platforms. These users claim to be victims of a “YouTube Purge,” described by Polygon as an “alleged condemnation of right-wing political channels, pro-gun advocates and conspiracy theorists.”

Or consider RightMesh, a platform that allows smartphones to build infrastructure by way of p2p connectivity, on the premise that “a connected world is a better world.” RightMesh can operate without internet access on devices the public already possesses.

This is not the first time crypto has played into Venezuela’s woes. Digital currency has been floated as a potential remedy for Venezuela’s hyperinflated economy. The volatility of Venezuela’s fiat currency — the bolivar is approaching 150,000% inflation — has fueled the creation of a huge cryptocurrency market in the country. It’s even been reported that Venezuela could see its first crypto ATM early this year. (Gaido, it should be noted, is a vocal supporter of Bitcoin).

A major goal of blockchain technology has always been the democratization of information, in the form of permanent, public, transparent ledgers that cannot be adulterated by those in charge. Crypto enthusiasts, meanwhile, have long touted digital currency’s potential in poor countries.

But as promising as crypto and blockchain may be for countries in distress, significant hurdles to adoption will remain as long as governments can control the internet. Alternative social platforms are a nice idea in theory, but state-run internet is a much larger problem, one from which not even the U.S. is immune.

 

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