The concept of blockchain is popularly associated with cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin in particular. But there is another function of the technology which could have huge repercussions for states which attempt to censure the internet – as well as improving inline security and even tackling fake news. It is called ‘Proof of Existence’ (PoE) – the least talked about but perhaps most powerful application of this nascent technology.
Earlier this year, a blog post by a Chinese student documenting the intimidation she’d suffered from school officials trying to block her investigation into an incident of sexual assault went viral. Not surprisingly, the post soon started disappearing from the country’s heavily censored internet – until someone had the insight to insert it into a public blockchain in Ethereum, an open-access computing operating system. Information which might otherwise have been lost in the ether now lives on in an all-but indestructible form.
The decentralised nature of platforms like Ethereum and Bitcoin makes their content – the data in their blocks – almost immutable, and by extension, censorship-resistant. Even if the Chinese government tried to have the text taken down, they would literally have nobody to call, because the Ethereum blockchain exists for no other reason than the fact that 15,000 independent participants choose to perpetuate it.
The impermanence of information has long been one of the most disconcerting features of the internet. Digital items – words, sounds, pictures – are easy to create, but they are just as easy to edit or destroy, leaving a lot of confusion in their wake. A photo uploaded to social media can be untagged. A business document stored in a shared drive could be deleted. A blog post challenging a government could be censored.
We didn’t have this problem so much when information was paper-based. There have always been governments which destroyed printing presses and thwarted the distribution of printed matter, but it was much harder for them to do away with every copy of a book or newspaper which had already been printed and distributed. Today it is the other way round: it is virtually impossible for oppressive governments to stop material being generated on the internet, yet it is relatively straightforward for them to delete it once it has been posted.
What’s been missing from the internet is a technology that provides the best of both worlds. Imagine a world full of documents that are as easy to create as a Word file, but as hard to tamper with as a stone engraving. That is where PoE comes in. Avoiding censorship might be the most powerful application of this technology, but most of the use cases are simply practical. Thanks to PoE we now have a way of creating digital content whose birth is officially timestamped, whose structure is immutable, and whose existence in their original form is permanent. Businesses can use PoE to cement any agreement, the digital equivalent of having a witness observe a contract signing – except that there are thousands of witnesses. Thanks to the ease of digital communication, the process can be automated and used on a regular basis, not just for agreements, but any information that might someday require verification, like financial records that need to eventually be verified by auditors and regulators.
Then there are the personal applications. Any piece of information that is important to preserve in its original form, like an affidavit or last will and testament, can be inserted into a blockchain. So can a newly composed piece of music, the blueprints for a new invention, or any other form of intellectual property that could benefit from an official timestamp that proves the date of inception.
Privacy advocates need not fret, because the same cryptography that makes a blockchain possible also enables users to hide their data. You don’t need to insert an entire document to prove its existence, just a cryptographic hash, or digital fingerprint. All it takes then is a special key retained by the creator to prove ownership.
Not surprisingly, there are many projects currently underway to make it easier to access the PoE feature of public blockchains. Most, though, are in their infancy, and probably years away from general use. Perhaps the most advanced implementation is the recent addition of a PoE feature by the digital document execution company Docusign. Any digital agreement executed on their platform could now also have a digital fingerprint inserted into Ethereum.
All of this comes with one important drawback. Censorship resistance is great for the information that we want, but can become a social nightmare for what we don’t. As this technology develops, it’s only a matter of time until fringe groups like terrorist organisations and child pornography rings start using it.
But, as with most innovations that stand the test of time, the benefits outweigh the costs. In PoE we have a tool that can finally move us beyond the gelatinous nature of digital information, returning much needed integrity to our words, documents and declarations.