How Bitcoin's Block Chain Could Stop History Being Rewritten
Despite the recent drop in bitcoin's price, cryptocurrency startups are now attracting more investment than ever and stories about major developments in the bitcoin ecosystem are being picked up by mainstream media on a regular basis.
The New York Times reported the news that popular bitcoin wallet provider Blockchain had raised $30.5m in financing. Last week, Time published an article titled How Bitcoin Can Save Journalism and the Arts, exploring bitcoin’s micropayment capability for creating a new model of content distribution that is free from advertising.
Yet, long before this new interest and innovation sparked outside the tech community, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange was seeing the promise of the bitcoin technology beyond currency.
The confluence of this stateless digital currency and the iconic whistle-blowing site first emerged when WikiLeaks faced a financial blockade by Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union, which reportedly blocked 95% of their revenue.
Bitcoin was used to circumvent the banking blockade. Here the advocates for the free flow of decentralized currency joined the fight for free speech.
The WikiLeaks-bitcoin alliance
In his conversation with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt documented in his new book When Google Met WikiLeaks, Assange described bitcoin as “something that evolved out of the cypherpunks” and explained in detail the underpinning technology that made it possible for WikiLeaks to counteract the state’s economic censorship.
However, it seems this is just the tip of the iceberg of the WikiLeaks-bitcoin alliance and the revolutionary potential hidden within the encryption-based network. The ramifications of bitcoin technology go far beyond the economic domain.
Appearing in the form of a hologram at The Nantucket Project conference, Assange spoke of the significance of the block chain, the underlying technology of bitcoin, particularly in relation to journalism and holding those in power to account.
Assange addressed the use of the block chain to create an historical archive. Calling bitcoin “the most interesting intellectual development on the Internet in the last five years", he described how the underlying architecture can be used for “providing proof of publishing at a certain time”.
See a video of Assange's comments below:
The block chain’s premise seemed to unite with WikiLeaks’ mission. In April 2010, Assange took the stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum, where he warned of the enormous force of control and power within the Internet and increasing censorship that threatens the free flow of information.
He spoke of the vital role of human intellectual content in civilization and described how, in this age of technology, everything is moving to digital. This power, often accrued by an unelected few, has increased through control of digital storage and access to information. This makes possible the erasing or altering of information that is critical to the historical record. He pointed out:
“We are now approaching the state of Orwell’s dictum, perfect dictum, that ‘he who controls the present controls the past’. He who controls the Internet servers controls the intellectual record of mankind, and by controlling that, controls our perception of who we are, and by controlling that, controls what laws and regulations we make in society.”
Dismantling this force of control has been WikiLeaks’ mission. By employing its method of transparency in the form of 'scientific journalism', they aimed to open governments and reveal their actions behind closed doors.
Through liberating the flow of information that had been stagnated by secrecy, complexity and manipulation, the organization strove to break Orwell’s dictum and bring the power to shape history into the hands of ordinary people.
Four years later, WikiLeaks is still on the front lines of this battle. In his new book, Assange again addressed the escalating implementation of Orwell’s dictum.
Giving an example of an incident where the Guardian pulled six articles from 2003 without explanation, he emphasized how WikiLeaks’ primary focus was to preserve “politically salient intellectual content while it is under attack” by going after information that has been suppressed or deleted.
Doing away with trust
Assange found a solution in the evolving block-chain technology. This provides decentralized solutions to the problems of centralized time stamping, as this requires trust in central authority, making it susceptible to third-party alteration and intervention.
Bitcoin’s distributed trust network can offer immunity from central control of any historical record. Assange described the basic premise of this technology as a network of consensus where “you can prove a particular statement, particular consensus and particular contract that happened at a particular time globally and it requires the subversion of every single jurisdiction where people are running bitcoin to overturn that”.
“The invention of the block chain further empowers people and challenges the insidious culture of ownership and control.”
In a nutshell, he noted: “bitcoin’s underlying technology breaks Orwell’s dictum”.
Some people have already used the block chain to store more than just transactions. In his blog, Ken Shirriff documented the result of his search through the block-chain 'database', reporting his discovery of interesting things including Satoshi Nakamoto’s white-paper, an image of Nelson Mandela and a 2.5-megabyte WikiLeaks cablegate backup. This information is now securely documented and cannot be erased or modified by anyone.
Proof of Existence is an example of the application of decentralized proof. This online service provides a way for people to publicly prove the existence of documents without revealing the data or their identity through bitcoin’s decentralized trust network.
It is a continuation of the earlier waves of decentralization of information seen in the last decade with the rise of Wikipedia, through its open-source collaborative production of a historical record – an online decentralized encyclopedia.
Freedom from control
Just as the Internet brought the everyday person the power to create their own narratives, the invention of the block chain further empowers people and challenges the insidious culture of ownership and control.
With unprecedented currency crises and government corruption, people are increasingly looking for alternatives to state and corporate control. As more begin to move into bitcoin to avoid government debasement, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine how this stateless public asset ledger could also become a new safe haven for investigative journalism and whistle-blowers.
A lot has happened since that day in Oslo when Assange identified the conundrum of our age. As the battle to break Orwell’s dictum intensifies, we now have in our hands a great tool to open up society.
Bitcoin can not only be used to fund revolutionary journalism like WikiLeaks, but also offers a decentralized platform for anyone to directly combat state censorship of information and create transparency for those in power.
The invention of bitcoin is just one crest of the continuous waves of a cryptographic revolution. As Assange said, this could free us from Orwell’s dictum.
In a time of seemingly universal deceit, reclaiming our past on the block chain is quickly becoming a revolutionary act.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, CoinDesk.
Locked file image via Shutterstock.
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