Thirty years after the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government is still working to remove any trace of the event from its cultural history.
Earlier this month a music fan wrote, “I don’t dare to say it, nor do I dare to ask” on a popular Chinese online forum in regard to the disappearance of Li Zhi, a Chinese musician who dared to speak out on social issues and democracy in his songs.
Three months ago, Li’s tour was unexpectedly canceled, his social media accounts went offline and his entire discography was scrubbed from China’s music streaming platforms. This involuntary “ghosting” isn’t isolated: The Chinese government has been cracking down on artists and activists like Li in preparation for the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests that took place on June 4, 1989. It’s reported that China’s Communist Party has detained dozens of activists and artists who have mentioned the atrocities of that massacre.
It’s no surprise that the Chinese government has never acknowledged that day or the thousands of civilians who were shot and killed at the hands of its army. This isn’t uncommon for countries with one-party systems and regimes that want to control information. But while it attempts to erase the collective memory of the Tiananmen protests, artists and activists like Li are fighting to remember — to ensure that something so dark would never take place at the hands of a governing body again.
Tech giant censorship
Unfortunately, tech giants in the United States fundamentally aid in the disenfranchisement of creators like Li — and therefore, in the suppression of democracy. In the early spring, Hong Kong Free Press reported that Apple Music had removed Hong Kong-based singer Jacky Cheung’s song for its reference to Tiananmen Square:
“The youth are angry, heaven and earth are weeping/ How did our land become a sea of blood?/ How did the path home become a path of no return?”
Pro-democracy singers Anthony Wong and Denis Ho have also been removed from Apple Music in China. The Apple App Store removed applications from its Chinese offering that discussed the Tiananmen Square protests, including The New York Times, Radio Free Asia and Tibetan News. Twitter recently refused to approve an emoji marking the 30th anniversary of the protests. Microsoft and LinkedIn steer clear of talking about their policies in China with the media. You get the picture.
The tech industry has failed artists like Li Zhi, Jacky Cheung, Anthony Wong and Denis Ho by aiding in the suppression of information and free speech.
If the U.S. is truly a nation that values democracy, freedom, and humanity — the technology industry should wield its power to combat censorship.
Centralized vs. decentralized services
Right now, music services cannot — and will not — protect the voices of artists worldwide, because the interests of the powerful will almost always win over those of creators on centralized services. That’s why we must put the power back in the hands of the people by using decentralized services and blockchain technology.
Because companies like Apple Music are centralized, they must comply with local regulations to remain operational, however unjust that regulation may be. This means they rapidly and readily succumb to the pressure of censors of many kinds, including one-party states like China. Creators don’t have any say in how their content is used or whether it stays available at all. This is true because it’s playing out right before our very eyes.
The next generation of music services should use technology like blockchains to combat censorship. Decentralizing the control of music distribution and content ownership gives artists, fans and community members the freedom to express themselves and interact directly with one another on their own terms. With no central authority — a government or corporation — a decentralized network can protect controversial creators from being silenced. Meanwhile, centralized services like Apple Music are required delist content when told to; with decentralized control, nobody would be capable of this — Li Zhi’s music would never have been taken down and the history of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests would never be erased.
This isn’t just a dream or a manifesto. Companies and projects are already using blockchain to solve some of the music industry’s biggest issues. My company, Audius, is a decentralized music-sharing protocol and the first to deliver a social music experience that directly connects artists and fans. Open Music Initiative is using blockchain to identify music creators so they can receive their deserved royalty payments. Smackathon, a competition created by Pitbull, is working to bring the top decentralized streaming services to music.
Music on blockchain
So, what exactly does music on the blockchain mean? What would the industry look like? It will be a decentralized community of artists, fans and developers sharing and defending the world’s music in accordance with the following principles:
- Decentralization: Members of the network will operate it, maintaining control of their data. With no central authority, it will be censorship-resistant, secure and community-driven.
- Open-source: Anyone can contribute ideas, build new clients or features, or host nodes on the network.
- Aligned incentives: Everyone who contributes value is fairly compensated.
Musicians will be able to generate immutable and time-stamped records of their creative works, making content ownership publicly verifiable and unchangeable. With a network that is decentralized, content-addressed and secured by a blockchain, content cannot be tampered with. If a creator elects, their content will remain live forever.
Content moderation will be community-driven, with disputes being resolved by a jury of peers on the network. For example, this arbitration system could resolve claims of piracy or determine revenue shares for derivative content. No government intervention or centralized entity will be able to call the shots on what can and can’t be taken down in the way they do today to silent dissenting voices.
It’s time we protect vulnerable creators with censorship-resistant technology. Let’s enable artists to distribute what they like, when they like, to whom they like — making it impossible for a government to decide which content can and cannot be listened to by its citizens.