Can Blockchain Bring Trust Back to the Internet?
It’s not if the internet has changed our lives, but how. It's changed the way we communicate, how we shop, how we do business, how we consume media, and how we work, and it’s made the world a much smaller, more accessible place.
But along with the benefits comes a deep-rooted problem: trust.
Obviously the internet was never made to take trust into account, as it was built to network with computers through wires and electricity. But the internet is nothing without the people who use it. Computers don't dream, or care about self-enrichment, or feel valued, or feel empowered. But people do. Which means that while the internet is a great place for connection, creativity, advancement, and innovation, it's also a place for fraud, manipulation, impersonation, and theft.
The best relationships are based on trust, and institutions will only thrive if based on truth. In order to fix the perils and threats of the internet we need more trust, built into its very systems. And trust itself is based on increased transparency and accountability.
We do in fact have a way to do this: through timestamping on the blockchain. It's an “easy” fix to a massive problem.
The Origins of Blockchain
Most people think blockchain technology was created by Satoshi Nakamoto in his 2008 white paper creating Bitcoin. But Satoshi was basing his Bitcoin blockchain on research from nearly twenty years previous. In 1991, blockchain technology was proposed by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, who wrote a paper entitled "How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document." It was through this idea of timestamping that blockchain was essentially created.
What was the major problem Haber and Stornetta were trying to solve? Trust. In an increasingly digital world, with more documents being created and stored on personal computers, they saw a problem arising around authenticity and verification.
In the past, it was easy to tell if a hardcopy was altered or tampered with, or you could find dated entries in a notebook to verify the sequence. But digital copies could be altered or changed without any sign that they were. How could you tell what's original without any kind of verification or transparency — any kind of truth?
They proposed a process of sending the document to a third-party timestamping service (TSS), who would then verify the document. But they worried about the third party — a person — stamping the wrong date or even changing or losing the document before they verified it.
So they proposed using encryption. Each document would be assigned a hash function based on its content, and that hash would be sent to the TSS, who would then verify it with a digital signature. Another piece of added security is that if the contents of the document were altered, the hash would be, too — ensuring that the original hash represented the original document.
What they created was the blockchain. But what they were fixing with timestamping was the issue of trust, transparency, and accountability — which is possibly much more of a problem today than it was in 1991.
What Timestamping Can Do Today
Today, we face the same problem online as Haber and Stornetta did in 1991. More documents in digital form — webpages, articles, images, social media posts — means more opportunity for fraud, misinformation, and copyright infringement. Authors are publishing articles that are then taken and reprinted by other, bigger sites. Readers find a piece of content, but when they go back to it, half of it has changed, and they don't know when or how. Having one editor-in-chief of the internet who approves and verifies all content isn't possible, so what's the next best step?
Timestamping, as Haber and Stornetta predicted thirty years ago, solves it.
Timestamping creates a unique identifying fingerprint for each piece of content, based on its title, its text, or its date published. This is its hash, which can then be verified and added to the public, decentralized ledger of the blockchain, increasing transparency around content creation.
It's like a patent approval, copyright, or notary stamp for digital documents, locking in the moment it was written, who it was written by, and the exact contents. There can be no question around what the original piece of content was, as the hash can be called up on the blockchain at any time.
Timestamping is an easy and effective way of proving original authorship, increasing accountability, and virtually ending copyright disputes. And if the content was changed or tampered with, the hash also changes, making it a different identifier from the original. This means that timestamping can also keep track of version updates.
What this means for creators is that they can feel confident putting their work, ideas, and creativity into cyberspace, because timestamping will assure that the entirety of the internet recognizes them as the original author.
What this means for readers is that they can feel confident reading a piece on the internet that's verified, and feel an increased level of trust knowing when it was published and by whom, and when and how the content has been updated.
What this means for the internet as a whole is that timestamping can immediately increase transparency into the content being created, and raise everyone's level of confidence in the system. It also means establishing a foundation of accountability that the internet hasn't had before.
This type of technology around securing content on the internet may have been proposed three decades ago, but it's being applied today, for the first time in history, as an open source, easily executable way to combat misinformation, plagiarism, and fraud.
Today, the default is that a piece of content may not be trustworthy. But there will be a day when everyone can be confident in internet content because they see its timestamp.
About the author:
Sebastiaan is the founder and CEO of WordProof, winner of the European Commission’s one million Euro Blockchains for Social Good Contest. He’s on a mission to bring trust back to the internet.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.