Blockchain’s potential to sustain a distributed, tamper-proof infrastructure for collective digital memory has taken on an unexpected political salience for citizens in Hong Kong.
Soon after Hong Kong’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, or RTHK, revealed its intent to erase any archived content over one year old, residents hurried to save a trove of past news footage that had until now been freely available to the public. The reason for their haste was the recognition that RTHK’s archive contains critical coverage of the recent years of anti-authoritarian struggles and protests that were initially sparked by the introduction of the draconian national security law, as well as evidence of these struggles’ brutal repression.
The fight over the collective record of the past has long been underway at an official level, encapsulated by the Hong Kong police’s attempt to rewrite the narrative of one of the most violent and traumatic episodes in the 2019 protests: an indiscriminate assault on civilians at the suburban subway station Yuen Long. RTHK’s impartial coverage of that episode will be among the content lost to oblivion now that incremental deletion is underway.
Against this backdrop, a blockchain platform that first emerged at the height of the protest movement is now poised to provide citizens and activists with the vital means to reclaim and preserve their recent political history in its integrity.
The platform, called LikeCoin, is a blockchain-based decentralized publishing infrastructure, which provides a decentralized registry for all manner of content. Its features enable Hong Kongers to coordinate their efforts to archive now-endangered records across one distributed and tamper-proof collective database.
Rather than storing the data itself, LikeCoin registers the metadata i.e. information regarding the content’s author, title, publication date and location. It also stamps each entry with a unique and immutable digital fingerprint: an International Standard Content Number, or ISCN, similar to a book’s ISBN.
The platform’s founder, Kin Ko, told reporters that while downloading and saving content in an ad-hoc manner may help citizens to resist official censorship of history to an extent, proving the authenticity and integrity of that data in the future will be more problematic. He explained:
“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? […] 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’s blockchain infrastructure, 10 (or however many) years from now it will be possible to know whether or not the content has been tampered with by tracking any changes to its digital fingerprint. When it comes to historically significant archived video footage, that could offer a clue that the original file may have been re-edited in a deliberately misleading way.
LikeCoin uses its own blockchain to avoid the high transaction costs of a network like Ethereum at such a scale. Backing up a country’s recent political history is no small matter. Ethereum had, in a more limited context, memorably been used to publish and preserve a single letter by Chinese #MeToo activists battling government censorship.