The emergence of the newest platform favoured by far-right actors has received surprisingly little attention in the midst of ongoing news about Parler. Odysee, a YouTube-like video hosting platform, was launched at the end of 2020 following a beta version that went live in September.
The interface of Odysee is nearly identical to YouTube. Users can upload videos onto their channels, viewers indicate their approval by liking videos and leaving comments, and the homepage lists popular topic categories of videos trending on the site.
Despite these similarities, there are some notable differences with Odysee, much of it due to its underlying infrastructure. Unlike big tech companies, Odysee was created by the same team behind LBRY, a blockchain protocol. While YouTube stores video uploads onto its centralised servers, Odysee works like a peer-to-peer data exchange distributed over a network in order to avoid centralised servers. This underlying tech is not necessarily new. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin use the same blockchain technology, a sophisticated version of earlier upload/download peer-to-peer system designs like torrents.
Odysee also runs on open-source software that is driven by public developers, not managed by corporate tech giants. The data itself remains secure through a vast distributed, transparent, and traceable network. On the other hand, this public dimension means that open-source data is not subject to regulation by government authority or industry.
Odysee is not inherently a platform for far-right or extremist content creators. For many, it primarily serves as a backup, or secondary, library. But for YouTubers that have been banned or demonetised, Odysee serves as an attractive option. Upon public release, the platform recorded 8.7 million users since beta testing began in September, thus delivering potential for a wide audience. Popular channels include a spectrum of far-right commentators ranging from right-wing academic Jordan Peterson, alt-right YouTuber Tarl Warwick, and MAGA pundit Elijah Schaffer who participated in the US Capitol insurrection and popularised the false narrative of the 2020 election result as illegitimate.
Another notable feature of Odysee is the income generation model. While YouTube creators primarily rely upon advertising revenue dependent on the number of views, Odysee offers three options for monetisation. The first is earnings per view, in which users with a validated account receive payments in the form of LBRY Credits (LBC) designated as a ‘tip’ in their ‘wallet’ based on viewers with validated accounts. This works like a type of reward system. Earnings are determined by rates for each channel subject to “average watch time, average view count, type of content, engagement, creator location, price of credits, etc.” Users that receive a high amount of credits perform better in search results and have their content appear in top and trending lists. The total number of LBC earned is listed on users’ channels.
A second form of monetisation is tips from viewers, or direct donations. Viewers can select the ‘support’ function on individual videos and choose from a range of amounts in LBC. These tips are then distributed to users. Users can redeem tips by ‘unlocking’ LBC in their wallet with the option to choose the amount to unlock. However, users are encouraged not to unlock the full tip amount since unlocking reduces the boost of a user’s content in search results, trending, and discovery suggestions; the default unlock setting is at 25 per cent of the full amount. LBC can be exchanged for non-digital currencies but must first go through a cryptocurrency exchange. Odysee recommends digital currency exchange platform Bittrex Global and Bitcoin as a cryptocurrency.
The third monetisation option that Odysee lists is site/app promotions. However, no further information is provided on this scheme, and will likely be posted in the future as the platform grows.
Perhaps most appealing is that given the blockchain technology structure, content posted onto Odysee cannot be removed or changed. This poses a serious dilemma for governments, law enforcement, industry, and civil society actors on regulating the sharing of extremist content and propaganda. At the same time, Odysee’s community guidelines state that “content that incites hatred or violence towards a particular group,” “content that incites violence towards a particular group or person,” and “content that promotes terrorism” is not allowed on the platform. Whether or not these guidelines will be enforced is left to be seen, but it is important to note that these are merely guidelines, not legal sanctions and immutable of removal.
As social media platforms transition from older models of operation led by big tech towards community-driven decentralised blockchain networks, our approach to countering potential terrorist activity and content also has to shift to reflect these new standards. The technical challenges of this approach are not easy, but not impossible either, particularly when working in collaboration with relevant state actors and intermediaries. Applying pre-existing frameworks on illegal content removal, such as terrorism materials, can be used to prevent illegal content being introduced into blockchain in the first place.
A more straightforward and productive approach is working with digital currency exchange platforms to target users financing terrorist and extremist activity. As I detail in my forthcoming book on alt-right influencers, the cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase has taken steps to remove customers who violate terms of service, such as receiving funds for promoting hateful content. The transparency of blockchain technology allows anyone to trace cryptocurrency transactions, including that of extremist users. A step in the right direction would be to include digital currency exchange providers such as Coinbase and Bittrex as members in the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) working in partnership with other technology companies.