The Civil project is one of those things I have trouble coming to grips with. Everyone knows that Journalism—in the classic twentieth century version, at least—is in trouble. The Internet has lowered the barriers to mass distribution, so that anyone can communicate with everyone. This has pretty much obliterated “filters” on what is or isn’t news or even what constitutes “facts”. We are all familiar with the resulting flood of hype, propaganda, and just plain fake information.
Civil seeks to address this problem by creating carefully curated (to use the current word) information. Part of this effort is pretty standard stuff: solicit people who know what they are talking about to write informative pieces about stuff they actually understand. A key piece of the puzzle is careful documentation of the source of the information, so you can try to judge the trustworthiness. Right or wrong or questionable, at least you should know where the information comes from.
But Civil also wants to tackle the economics of Journalism. They not only want good content, they want a way for people to be paid for producing good content. This is a hard problem, because powers that be want to control information, and use economic power to that end. In many cases, it isn’t necessary to suppress information, if people have no means to create it in the first place.
The Civil project is excited about cryptocurrency technology. Originally, I assumed that they would be most interested in the prospect of micropayments, which would let people pay as they read. This idea is seductive, though I have yet to see it work. Cryptocurrency seems well suited to this role: It is essentially a digital coin slot, and people can drop in small amounts of money to, say, read this blog post. This can replace advertising, and also is a way for people to “subscribe” to things they really want. Cryptocurrency is also global, so you don’t need to deal with local governments that want to block certain stories.
As things have developed, Civil seems to have taken a bit of a swerve. This year they got excited about another use case for cryptocurrency, and tried an ICO—Initial Coin Offering. Apparently the hope was to fund the project through this mechanism. In principle, this could mesh with the “coin slot” concept: essentially, they could mint tokens that you use to buy their content. And content providers could be paid in these tokens, which might be swapped or redeemed.
From what I read, their first try at an ICO did not go so well . ICOs are notoriously iffy, and Civil does actually care about its reputation, so this has got to be problematic. Apparently, they are going to try again. Sigh.
I don’t know if Civil will succeed on this economic front. But Civil is also pursuing one more blockchain use case: archiving.
Besides the economics, there is concern that digital information will be censored, and just plain “disappeared”. In my own experience, most of information lost on the Internet is due to natural decay and erosion: the Internet is a wobbly, cobbled together technology (and here I know what I am talking about ). Stuff stops working all the time, and once the last copy goes down, it’s usually gone forever. (On the other hand, other stuff that really should go away seems to last and spread forever. Sigh.)
But there are certainly powers that work to take down information they don’t like. This is certainly a hazard for journalism (however you defined it), and also, I might add, for academic scholarship .
The technology of robust digital archiving is pretty well understood. Replicating data, checksumming, and so on have been around for a long time. The main issue is resources: it takes money and most of all human effort to make sure that things are reliably and usefully preserved. (The “useful” part refers to the need to be able to find and access the preserved data, not just squirrel it away.)
Nakamotoan blockchain technology emerged out of peer-to-peer server technology, which is all about replicating content to make it hard to delete or lose. Indeed, a Nakamotoa blockchain is a massively replicated digital ledger, primarily intended to be really, really permanent. So, from the very beginning, people have put stuff on the blockchain as a way to keep it alive forever.
Civil is taking up this approach for the purpose of assuring the permanent availability of their articles. This involves storing the full text in a record or records on the blockchain, with digital signatures to assure authenticity and preent tampering. This record will be replicated by every copy of the Ethereum blockchain, and will remain available as long as the blockchain exists.
I take Civil seriously. They are working to solve an important problem. But their flirtations with blockchain to date look pretty iffy ot me.
For one thing, using the blockchain is a technical solution to social and political problems. And I have to wonder how well it will work for any of their use cases.
In the case of archiving, it certainly does work technically, but there are serious questions about possible side effects.
The technology that Civil uses to store “good” journalism will be used by every fake news troll in the world to make sure that there stuff can’t be deleted. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: the blockchain will fill up with propaganda, slander, and who knows what, with no way to “take it down”. Heck, it already is used to store all kinds of iffy stuff.
Granted, browsers and other software can filter stuff, ignore junk and only serve Civil’s “good” stuff. (Thus perpetuating the other huge problem with the Internet: information bubbles.)
The problem is that storing an article (or anything) on a blockchain means that “possession” of the blockchain requires “possession” of that information. There is no way to use part of a blockchain, it’s all or nothing. This means that anyone who wants to support the blockchain, for profit or just to help replicate the records, must replicate everything or nothing.
if the blockchain becomes a repository for everything, and you have to take it all or have none of it, then that will be a serious problem for many people.
Just as an example—many organizations prohibit pornography, etc., from company computers. By extension, many blockchains are proscribed from these machines—because there is no way to store just part of the blockchain, and not the prohibited parts. For a second example: it is a prosecutable offence to “possess” pornography on your computer, and the fact that it is buried in the blockchain may not be a legal defense in some jurisdictions.
So, storing things on the blockchain will put pressure on people to avoid replicating the blockchain, and could even get a whole blockchain banned. This is bad for the technology (fewer replicates) and bad for other use cases (such as commerce or provenance).
So, I think there is a serious question of trade-offs here. Plus, there is no reason why distributed replication can’t be done with other technology. Blockchain may be easy to use, but it isn’t the only way to create a cooperating network of replicated archives.
I hope Civil succeeds, though I suspect that they will eventually abandon blockchain technology.
- Maria Bustillos, Popula Makes History, in Popula. 2018. https://popula.com/2018/12/17/popula-makes-history/
- Nikhilesh De (2018) Civil-Backed News Site Stores Full Article on Ethereum Blockchain. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/civil-backed-news-site-archives-article-on-ethereum-blockchain
- Nancy J. Yeager and Robert E. McGrath, Web Server Technology: The Authoritative Guide, San Francisco, Morgan-Kaufmann, 1996.