Blockchain’s Roots with Anti-Censorship and What That Means Today

March 28, 2024

Arcual's CEO Bernadine Bröcker Wieder explores the topic further.

As bitcoin reaches record highs, most blockchain-related headlines focus on cryptocurrency, its most established use case. But blockchain’s distributed ledger technology, where a copy of the information is encrypted and stored on multiple servers simultaneously to create immutable data standards, can be used for more use cases than keeping track of money and avoiding double-spending.

I remember being pitched the use case for blockchain technology to help avoid censorship, by creating immutable proof of occurrences or publications. In the early days of blockchain, human rights activists and journalists were inspired by blockchain’s potential to help fight the censorship of truth. An example is the 2016 project Civil, which attempted to build a network of verified journalistic information. A project called Arweave to this day provides permanent information storage and its founder Sam Williams frequently mentions the importance of immutable information storage, referencing Orwellian novels and how truth is malleable. A miniseries on Akord’s website linking to Arweave quotes “Censorship resistance: Arweave's promise goes beyond just storing data. Its architecture ensures that once information is published, it remains accessible and resistant to attempts of suppression, even from powerful entities wishing to reshape narratives.” A more recent example is the Italian startup Wuvday, which timestamps the location and time of photojournalism.

The revolutionary headlines of these blockchain companies may not be the panacea they make out, but their ideas filter into other parts of the industry. When the Civil project failed due to problems with infrastructure and scalability, ConsenSys, Ethereum’s venture-building studio, took over the Civil team. This means many developers and product managers building Metamask and Quorum remember trying to fight for free journalism with immutable records. The former CEO of the aforementioned Civil, Matthew Iles, went on to build Mojito which powered Sotheby's Metaverse. Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, started his career consulting for the art blockchain project Ascribe in 2013 to register “proof of existence” of artworks. 

Today’s highly politicised landscape means that combatting censorship resurfaces in the deadlines. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are essential tenets of democracies. In 2024, democracy undergoes its biggest test as more than 2 billion people in 50 countries head to the polls, while trust in institutions continues to erode. Can censorship-resistant technology fill that hole? 

The issue with defining truth is that to maintain some form of “consensus” on what is true, a certain level of censorship or control is necessary, as more recent Ethereum debates about data storage have proven. Even the most idealistic approaches require some censorship/control to work.

In the art world this last month, there have also been multiple examples of artists or organisations claiming that their artistic practices have undergone censorship. This entailed artists trying to produce activist art, or organisations trying to work freely while appeasing funding bodies. Freedom of expression underpins artistic creation: no surprise that actions looking to tone down someone’s truth cause people to decry “censorship”. 

Can blockchain's roots in anti-censorship support the art industry? The world of art and blockchain overlap due to the need for “facts” in an industry where the truth often evolves over time. A painting may be attributed to Rubens one year and not the next, or live in a grey area where experts disagree on its attribution over the years. Preserving cultural value relies on being able to timestamp and fact-check art-related facts and the provenance of those. But, sometimes the loss of information can also be helpful to the industry and the mystique of the artwork itself.

What is the “truth” of the art world, and can it be protected? The nuance of identifying “truth” versus “opinion” when talking about art and creative processes, and storing that information indefinitely, drives many intellectuals to this space, inspiring discourse and debate. Art experts publish their findings around the globe and the ICRA and CRSA organise conferences each year on art attribution and scholarship, to find a way to store that “truth” for future generations of scholars. 

Traditionally, books publish information officially for future generations. As data on the internet are increasingly used by artificial intelligence alongside humans, attention must be paid to this - speeding up the process of verifying information and making that verified information available to machines. Creating immutable files that are timestamped and accessible helps humanity attest to the truth of facts: about ownership, about occurrences, about existence or even about opinions.

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