For this week’s edition of Max’s Corner, I’d like to take a look at a few different developments that I think deserve our attention.
The first is the Google Core Update and the effect it had on online media – in particular, crypto media. The second is the current situation of jailed Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, who just wrote a poignant article detailing some of the ways he has learned to cope with the privations that now dictate his life. The third, and final, is the official launch of Libra, Facebook’s set to be behemoth “stable coin.”
We are, it seems, in transcendent waters now – thanks undoubtedly to Facebook, but also to other less covered projects and activities – and entering into another “crypto moment” wherein the attention of the world will be focused intently on this sphere. For my part, in conjunction with the work I do at Bytecoin, I hope that those of us who got started in this space, inspired by what we saw as an antidote to an oppressive and meretricious global finance scheme, are not silent now as the corporations come round filling coffers.
CCN Goes Down, Rises Again
In a surprising move, CCN announced on June 10 that it would be shutting down all operations after six years of crypto coverage thanks to the damage done to the site’s traffic numbers by the Google Core Update. Google updated its search algorithm on June 3 and the changes have had a pronounced impact on search results for news and blog sites that rely on traffic flow to generate advertising revenue.
In a charged article, CCN founder Jonas Borchgrevink revealed that the algorithm adjustment resulted in a 71% drop in mobile traffic overnight. While Borchgrevnik noted that the site’s traffic was not lower than it had been in the past, the company has vastly expanded since then and as a result, the subsequent losses in ad revenue would make continuing operations on the site unfeasible.
CCN was not the only crypto site to take a hit from the algorithm update, nearly all major sites in the crypto space lost traffic. In his article, Borchgrevink suggests that Google may have tinkered with its algorithm to benefit sites that share its political bias, which he characterizes as decidedly leftist. To be fair, this is not the first time that someone has leveled political bias claims against Google, many have done it, including the current US president.
To CCN and other sites that were affected, Google suggested that they review past guidelines on how to best optimize their content for interaction with its algorithm. The criteria often pointed to as having the most impact on a site’s Google search placements is called EAT, which stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. Borchgrevink was quick to point out that his site has had very few problems achieving any of those qualities.
Whatever it was that caused such a sharp decline in traffic, two days later Borchgrevink wrote another article announcing that he was canceling the cancelation of CCN, hinting that it was a publicity stunt, and the site was working on ways to regain the ground it lost in search traffic. Manufactured drama or not, the algorithm change did result in a wide range of sites losing a lot of traffic and put a spotlight on Google’s perhaps not so transparent methodology.
Ross Ulbricht Speaks from Solitary
For those of us who have been here a while, the name Ross Ulbricht evokes memories of the earlier, wilder years and perhaps shudders knowing how things fell apart. Ulbricht was the founder of Silk Road, one of the original darknet marketplaces that offered everything you were never supposed to touch – save the things that caused direct harm to others, we were assured.
Ulbricht, who was known on the site by the moniker Dread Pirate Roberts, was arrested back in 2013 on an array of charges including money laundering, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and attempting to contract murders-for-hire. The FBI closed in on him while he was in the San Francisco Public Library, with two agents pretending to be quarreling lovers in his vicinity in order to distract him while a third swiped his laptop, making it impossible for him to delete or encrypt any of the information he had on it.
Following his arrest, there was a media sensation caused by the accusation that he paid a member of the Hell’s Angels to murder up to six people that were involved in an extortion scheme against him in his role as proprietor of Silk Road. Though the murder charges were later dismissed with prejudice, they were cited in the original judgment against Ulbricht where he was handed down consecutive life sentences without parole.
The Silk Road saga is endlessly fascinating and ultimately harrowing. Ulbricht started out as a young man disillusioned by the economic and cultural shackles placed upon him by what he considered an outdated system. Silk Road to him began as a marketplace where thanks to cryptocurrency and TOR his Austrian Economics influenced philosophy could be actualized.
Things ended up going terribly wrong, but in all of this, there is the sense that back then Ulbricht was the embodiment of the threat that all of these new technologies and new ways of doing things presented to a system (media, political, financial, etc.) that does not suffer threats kindly. Six years down the line and Ulbricht has run out of appeals options and is left hinging his hopes on a miracle.
His guest article, regardless of what you think about the specifics of his past, is full of pathos and inspiring in a humble, human way.
Slouching Towards Silicon Valley
The whitepaper for Libra, Facebook’s cryptocurrency was released this week along with word that Visa, Mastercard, Uber, eBay, Lyft, Spotify and a swath of other massive corporations have contributed funding to the project and will serve in some capacity at the Libra Association, the nonprofit drawn up by Facebook to manage operations and development for Libra.
As I talked about last week, the humanitarian interests that Facebook keeps on trumpeting are absurd. Even if Facebook were being honest – they never are – about them, they aren’t practical. For starters, it will be controlled completely by a central authority. This central authority will be no different in its interests and presumably its actions than the central authorities that control, and do so poorly, national fiat currencies.
Bitcoin was born from a mistrust of central authority and a rejection of the excesses of speculative valuation. With every passing day, people believe less and less in their governments and the financial institutions that control them. Libra is an attempt to ride the wave of public sentiment by pandering to people who will see the “cryptocurrency” appellation and believe that what Facebook is producing is anything other than another Trojan Horse of intrusion, the scale of which will only become clear in the aftermath once another Troy has fallen.
With that being said, I agree with what Caitlin Long predicted in her recent Forbes piece. I think – or at least I hope – that Libra will only be a success as a means of normalizing cryptocurrency for the masses and creating more opportunities for people working in this industry.
The problem is, though, it’s hard to bet against Facebook. Laws, morals, decency be damned, they tend to find a way to win. To alter the words of ill-fated Laocoon, I fear these geeks, especially when they come bearing “gifts”.