A new bitcoin privacy technology was born this week, inspired by the politics of the “Great Lockdown.” 

On Monday, software engineer John Cantrell released a messenger application called Juggernaut. It’s built entirely on top of bitcoin’s scaling layer, the Lightning Network, and offers end-to-end encrypted, onion-routed, peer-to-peer messages.

In some ways, Juggernaut offers a more secure and primitive version of the Ethereum-based Status messaging app or the bitcoin-friendly mobile app Sphinx Chat. But everything comes with tradeoffs and Juggernaut prioritizes privacy.

While it’s now in early beta stages, Cantrell said the idea was inspired by censorship concerns, such as those we’ve already seen during the coronavirus crisis, from WeChat and Facebook deleting posts about the pandemic to Google suspending an Idaho church app for allegedly violating Google Play’s new events policies. For just one more example, bitcoin advocate Knut Svanholm said Amazon forced him to remove a brief mention of the coronavirus from his self-published book in order to distribute it through Kindle.

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“It seems like maybe we’re heading toward a type of world where the government may shut down communication channels, you can’t say these things on Twitter, etc.,” Cantrell said. “If I want to use some service with an API to, say, send emails or text messages or pretty much any API, I have to create an account with that website and use my credit card or bank account.”

This messaging app doesn’t rely on a commercial server. Instead, the app runs on a Lightning node, from homemade Raspberry Pi devices to Casa models, so that bitcoiners can send messages directly between nodes by using their node public keys like usernames.

This primitive beta allows users to open channels with a small amount of bitcoin, that can be sent back and forth without actually requiring payment, or pay small routing and transaction fees to the network if the user doesn’t use a direct channel. Either way, it would cost less than a dollar to send millions of private messages without relying on an external service. 

“In these LSAT or micro-payment-enabled APIs,” Cantrell said, referring to how Juggernaut uses Lightning Lab’s LSAT standard, “it allows for global access to almost any service. That’s the grand vision here. How do we allow someone to use any service without needing to go through the traditional route.”

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EARN IT Act

Censorship isn’t strictly a pandemic issue, pending legislation could jeopardize legal protections for technologists and service providers long after coronavirus fades into memory.

The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act, a bill sponsored by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal may soon force tech companies to abide by new online child protection laws or risk lawsuits for unmoderated content.

Riana Pfefferkorn, the associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, called the EARN IT Act a “stalking horse for banning end-to-end encryption,” supported by President Donald Trump

Eugen Rochko, founder of the decentralized social network Mastodon, which runs on federated servers, believes bills like the EARN IT Act could further entrench tech monopolies. On the other hand, he said decentralized platforms can still address moderation concerns without government censorship.  

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“One benefit is that there’s just, like, more moderation,” Rochko said of grassroots networks. “The other benefit is that the moderation is more flexible to global needs because there is not a predefined set of rules that come from a specific place.”

From the perspective of Juggernaut’s Cantrell, creating a privacy tool for more decentralized social messaging felt like a “revolutionary” moment, discovering a radically different way to use bitcoin software. The Lightning Network could be used for anything from an “unstoppable poker room” to complex software services, he said. 

“The messages are being routed over the Lightning Network. They’re not just simple messages, they’re server requests,” Cantrell said, adding the server requests could be configured to automate a wide range of computer functions. “I can access a paid API and pay for exactly what I use. It would allow for easier onboarding and global access.” 

Benjamin Powers contributed reporting.

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