The infamously censorious Chinese government really doesn't like its citizens being reminded of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In June of that year, democratic student protests ended in a government-led bloodbath and left us with one of the most iconic images of courage in the face of repression: the "tank man."
Every year around the time of the protest anniversary, the Chinese government uses its vast internet censorship machinery to block searches for hundreds of keywords relating to Tiananmen Square on social media and search engines. In 2014, the government blocked access to Google products inside China to stymie discussion of the anniversary.
This week, however, someone uploaded the the "tank man" image and information relating to the protests and massacre were to the bitcoin blockchain, which were thus downloaded to the computers of every Chinese person running bitcoin software. For as long as their computers are connected to the blockchain, the image and event that the Chinese government has tried so hard to repress will be accessible.
Before you assume this was a radical act of free speech, it should be noted that the intent was less than noble despite its democratic veneer.
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Anger has been simmering in the bitcoin community over the centralization of mining power in China, and the support that people like Jihan Wu, co-founder of mining company Bitmain, have thrown behind a contentious plan to split bitcoin in two. It's unclear who did it, but as explained in a Reddit post, the idea of uploading the tank man image to the blockchain was to get Chinese miners like Wu in trouble with the government. It was never going to work.
"I think that this is another example of 'collateral freedom' in action," Charlie Smith, a member of anti-censorship group GreatFire, wrote me in an email. "Basically 'collateral freedom' is the strategy of sharing content that would normally be censored on platforms that are too important for the authorities to just block. Yes, the authorities frown upon this kind of action. But they are likely to feel frustrated that they cannot exert their influence."
When I reached out to Bitmain, the company didn't seem worried in the least that a censored image was now sitting on their servers.
"The picture and other anti-gov [ sic] propaganda is in an encrypted form on the blockchain and, to access it, requires tools that are not easily available," said Bitmain spokesperson Nishant Sharma in an email. "So, I believe it is not something the Chinese government or any serious organization would be concerned about at this moment."
When an image is "stored" on the blockchain, what's really being saved is an encrypted value that must be decoded to display the image. It's not easy for the average person to view, unless you use a service like CryptoGraffiti, which makes it rather simple to upload text and images to the blockchain, and view them.
"I think that this only highlights the naivety of the protagonists," Smith wrote.
"While the sharing of a sensitive image might get a platform blocked, the authorities are more worried about the sharing and dissemination of information," he continued. "In this case, in the eyes of the authorities, the situation is under control."
So, while a dickish plan to get Chinese bitcoin miners in trouble may have failed, some jerks accidentally did a solid for free speech.
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