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Opinion: Decentraland will have to build a culture of self-censorship

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What happens if someone builds a skyscraper-sized middle finger in Decentraland, hypothetically speaking?

Decentraland is an Ethereum-based game which basically puts Second Life on the blockchain. It raised a snappy $20 million during the ICO boom of 2017 and has now finally launched.

Decentraland's value proposition for users is quintessentially blockchain-ey. It's a lot like Second Life, except you get to personally own your digital assets, everything in the virtual world is measurably scarce, and the world is decentralised and censorship resistant.

While Second Life saw the robust exchange of all kinds of digital goods, the digital property ladder is currently where the real money is in Decentraland.

As a slice of decentralised digital paradise, it's operated by a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO), which is functionally intended to bring a degree of censorship resistance and transparent democracy to the new digital world.

Decentraland raises all kinds of fascinating questions around governance, DAOs, accountability, censorship and ownership of digital assets, all of which are nicely exemplified in two simple questions: what happens if someone builds an 800 foot high swastika on their land and what will that do to property prices?

There goes the neighbourhood

Anecdotally, and by observing other digital communities, we can see that a healthy amount of self-censorship isn't always a bad thing. A laissez faire approach to free speech often leads to echo chambers and less diversity of opinion in online communities.

This is because people prefer to seek like-minded company, and if a community proves to be sufficiently offensive, members will simply go somewhere else. This leaves behind a same-minded group of people. This is why completely unmoderated Internet bastions of free speech tend to veer towards extremist fringes over time.

Decentraland isn't like other online communities though, for several reasons.

One is that it's decentralised. It has no real central points of power, except the smart contracts themselves. No one can unilaterally decide to take the world a specific direction. Another is that it has a democratic governance structure.

And a third one is that the community has a direct, shared financial incentive to try to improve property prices. This is best done by growing the Decentraland userbase, which is probably best done by fostering a more inclusive online community. More directly, getting the website banned or blocked in certain countries wouldn't be good for its growth.

The end result is that the DAO, which we'll go ahead and call the HOA from here on, has a strong motivation to demolish that 800 foot eyesore. But is this even possible?

The home owner's association

Before the offending structure can be demolished, the property it's on will probably need to be somehow confiscated or bought out. If ownership of the land and the ability to build on it is dependent on private key possession, the community is unable to unilaterally agree to confiscate it. Basically, the owner of the land physically holds the digital land.

The Decentraland web host can't just remove or blot out the structure either, as the Decentraland world is hosted across a series of independent nodes called Catalysts.

There may be some legal recourse though, assuming the offending creator is even identifiable. The Decentraland terms of use clearly say you shouldn't do anything illegal on the platform. However, any questions around the legality of building an 800 foot swastika depend on where the builder is located.

If they're in the US, its construction would almost certainly be protected as free speech. Incidentally, that's why hate websites are typically hosted in the US. Note that this is not legal, financial or architectural advice.

It's possible, given how decentralised and censorship-resistant the place is, that the HOA or another party will need to buy out the land from the swastika owner before it can be demolished. As such, it may be possible for an unscrupulous free speech enthusiast to take advantage of this by buying land cheaply, building something wildly offensive on it, and then refusing to sell the land at anything except an inflated price.

The HOA has a $10 million treasury, but that won't last long if it has to be spent exercising eminent domain.

The Decentraland community and governance structure no doubt has lots of interesting challenges ahead of it. One of the subtler ones may be trying to develop a culture of practical, democratic self-censorship in a censorship-resistant world, and building the tools to enforce this.

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Disclosure: The author holds BNB, BTC at the time of writing.

Disclaimer: This information should not be interpreted as an endorsement of cryptocurrency or any specific provider, service or offering. It is not a recommendation to trade. Cryptocurrencies are speculative, complex and involve significant risks – they are highly volatile and sensitive to secondary activity. Performance is unpredictable and past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Consider your own circumstances, and obtain your own advice, before relying on this information. You should also verify the nature of any product or service (including its legal status and relevant regulatory requirements) and consult the relevant Regulators' websites before making any decision. Finder, or the author, may have holdings in the cryptocurrencies discussed.

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