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DECENTRALIZED

Hong Kongers are using blockchain archives to fight government censorship

Armed, white-clad men attacked protesters and commuters in Yuen Long, Hong Kong, on July 21, 2019
Reuters/Tyrone Siu
  • Mary Hui
By Mary Hui

Reporter

Published

The Hong Kong government has already shown it has no qualms about rewriting history. But, some wondered, would it really go so far as to erase history?

The answer is yes.

Earlier this month, the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong announced that it would begin erasing archival content that is over a year old. That means programs covering the 2019 Hong Kong protests would be wiped from RTHK’s website and social media accounts, as would the broadcaster’s coverage of the political crackdown. It is the latest development in the government’s bid to remake RTHK as part of its campaign to exert greater control over news media.

People began frantically backing up episodes of RTHK shows, with a focus on its award-winning current affairs program, Hong Kong Connection. An episode titled “7.21 Who Owns The Truth,” an investigation into the armed thug attack against protesters and civilians at the suburban Yuen Long train station in July 2019, offers an example of a key record in danger of being lost. In that incident, police officers only arrived on scene after the thugs had left, causing public trust in the Hong Kong police to plummet amid widespread speculation of collusion between the police and the thugs.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the Yuen Long attacks had become for the government, the first person to be convicted in relation to the incident was not one of the assailants, but a journalist who worked on the RTHK episode investigating the attacks. She was found guilty of misusing a public data base.

But with so much content at risk of erasure, not to mention the possibility of backed-up copies being removed from platforms like YouTube due to copyright reasons, it soon became clear that Hong Kong needed a more coordinated and sophisticated approach to archiving its recent past.

Preserving history with blockchain

Kin Ko is the founder of LikeCoin, a decentralized publishing infrastructure. As Ko explains it, where cryptocurrencies decentralize money and finance, the open-source LikeCoin blockchain technology decentralizes content and publishing.

It works like this. LikeCoin functions as a repository not of content, but of metadata—details like author, title, publication date and location, as well as a distinctive fingerprint. That metadata is unique and immutable, and generated the first time a piece of content is published. Just as each published book has a unique International Standard Book Number (ISBN), LikeCoin uses a digital registry protocol called the International Standard Content Number (ISCN) to catalog metadata.

While having people individually downloading backup copies of RTHK episodes is certainly helpful, Ko said, that method presents one problem: how do you retrieve that backup?

“If you’re the person who backed it up, you can look through the hard disk. But what if you’re not that person? Or what if your hard disk has broken?” he said. Then there’s the question of authenticity. “How do you know that [backed up] photo is the same photo taken 10 years ago? How do you know there hasn’t been extra work done to it?”

With LikeCoin, however, one need only check the ISCN fingerprint to see if the metadata is the same as the original copy, or if it has been tinkered with. Ko used RTHK’s “7.21 Who Owns the Truth” documentary as an example of how LikeCoin can ascertain authenticity. “If I watch this video 10 years later, if the fingerprint has changed, we know that the content has changed,” he said. That change could be benign, like compressing the video file into a smaller format. Or it could reveal tampering, like deleting frames or re-editing it in a misleading way.

Using blockchain to bypass censorship is not new. In 2018, for example, #MeToo activists in China used the Ethereum blockchain to preserve an open letter by a Peking University student who said she was being pressured by the administration to cease her activism on a sexual assault case. As Quartz explained at the time:

While the letter hasn’t lasted long on social media, it’s now on the ethereum blockchain for good. Transaction records for the cryptoasset show that on April 23, an ethereum address sent a value of zero ethereum to itself, costing a total of about 53 US cents (transactions using ethereum are charged a fee). The metadata to the transaction contained the the text of Yue’s open letter.

Ko, who has a background as a game developer, said that the initiative to backup Hong Kong content on LikeCoin is slightly different. First, Ethereum’s high transaction costs means that backing up a large body of content, as opposed to a single letter, would quickly get very expensive. “That’s why we need to create our own, specific blockchain, designed for content saving, not for finance,” he said.

Another difference is that LikeCoin only stores metadata, whereas in the case of the Peking University example, the Ethereum transaction metadata stored the text of the open letter. With the LikeCoin system, the actual content is backed up on something called the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a distributed system for storing files, websites, applications, and data. Akin to peer-to-peer torrenting services like BitTorrent, the more people using IPFS to store content, the faster a search is, Ko explained.

For now, the LikeCoin blockchain technology is relatively young. It was launched in beta format in November 2019, at the height of Hong Kong’s protests, with Ko eyeing an official launch this summer. He acknowledges that LikeCoin still needs to be more user-friendly, but said Hong Kong’s social circumstances forced him to unveil it earlier.

Local independent news outlets, including the Stand News and Citizen News, also use LikeCoin. This helps the publications catalog their content on a decentralized registry, storing their content on IPFS and generating a unique fingerprint for each piece of content.

Ko, an avid watcher of Game of Thrones, alluded to the series’ character Bran Stark to illustrate the importance of decentralizing knowledge. In the show, Stark’s ability to see into the past makes him a powerful figure, and also means a key villain wants to kill him in order to destroy memory. The corollary, Ko explained, is that if Stark were decentralized on blockchain, no villain would be able to kill him and thus erase history.

The task of “preserving history cannot be handed to a single unit,” said Ko. “You can’t rely on a single unit to it. You need a broad populace to do it. ”

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