It has been said that the Internet never forgets.
But the blockchain really never forgets.
With current Internet, although difficult, it is at least theoretically possible to have your secrets, once exposed, removed from the World Wide Web. There are digital detectives and privacy law firms who, for a mere $50,000 and $300,000 per “project” (plus a “small” monthly maintenance fee) will find and destroy and trace of whatever information on you or your company you don’t want the world to know. Hell, if you know enough, you can even DIY your own “digital suicide”, as is detailed here.
Not only that, the Google-Internet we all know so well is designed to slowly bury old data in new data, with search ranking preference given to new news, in much the same way that old human civilisations are slowly buried by modern cities, the old data left to decay and disappear, as servers are switched off and domain URLS left to expire.
But the blockchain is different. All information on a blockchain network is stored for all time on all the nodes within the network. This is the backbone of the blockchain, a robust digital ledger in which all transactions are stored, publicly, immutably, forever. Indeed the system is designed to make going back and making changes almost impossible – due to the fact that every single node in the network would need simultaneously agree to undo every transaction dating back to when the compromising data first appeared on the network, much in the same way a knitter or crocheter would have to painstakingly unpick their work, row by row to find and fix a mistake.
Not only that, blockchain data, is designed to be archival, easily accessible on demand. In other words, not only is the data not going anywhere, it is also much, much easier to access, sort and recall – for any transaction, at any point in time – than data hidden on our current messy Internet is.
This immutable ledger system presents some simply amazing opportunities for ordering and organising many industries to be more efficient and less vulnerable to corruption.
It also makes the blockchain a great place for activists to ensure their protest messages are never forgotten.
This is because the current blockchain allows users to add extra code, that is embed additional textural or visual messages, into the transactions they record on the blockchain. These hidden messages are re-broadcast through the entire network every time a new transaction is added to the chain. There is no practical way to remove or censor these hidden messages.
The blockchain never forgets.
An example of a hidden protest message in the blockchain is the inclusion of the infamous “tank man” image of a young Chinese protestor facing off the Chinese government’s military tanks during the 1989 anti-government protests. Several important Wikileaks leaks are also embedded in the chain.
However, just because these hidden blockchain message examples have noble social justice intentions behind them, does not mean that all hidden messages are good for society. Indeed, if you run a blockchain node on your personal or corporate computer, you are already in violation of several countries’ child pornography laws; there are multiple links to known illegal child pornography websites embedded in the blockchain.
Just like the altruistic Wikileaks leak links, these pornography links are now part of the blockchain mesh, virtually impossible to remove without breaking the entire system.
Just consider, what if a vengeful ex-boyfriend or girlfriend posts some compromising “revenge porn” imagery of you in the blockchain? What would you do? What could you do?
Or think about a world where all your past mistakes, bad choices you made in college, poor grades in high school, failed marriages, social media rants about old bosses and ex lovers are all available, neatly archived, ready for prospective employers (or their search bots) to find, analyse and judge you with.
Don’t we all have a right to be forgotten?
(Disclaimer: Yes. there are some shiny new companies addressing the trade off between privacy and security presented by the blockchain, but it is still helpful to understand the problem before we tackle the solutions.)