Can you trust what you read on the internet?
Ideally, we’d be in a world where the answer to this question is an immediate “Yes.” But we know there’s a lot of distrust in what’s on the internet. It’s not because all internet content is untrustworthy. It’s because there’s been such deception through fake news, fraud, deep fakes, and plagiarism, with no way to verify what’s true and what’s not, that no one knows what to rely on anymore.
But the internet wasn’t created with trust in mind. It was created as a way to connect computers and pass along information from one node to the next. But users — people — are the ones using the internet to connect with one another, share our creativity, do business, conduct our lives, and learn about the world around us. But if the internet is the main source of information we receive, shouldn’t it be trustworthy?
The internet is lacking clear tools for transparency and accountability. And in many ways, the internet is stacked against readers and content consumers, who have no idea if what they’re reading is original content, or if it’s been changed, corrupted, or even plagiarized. Yet there’s a solution that can provide a big fix to fighting fraud and fake news on the internet: Timestamping content to the blockchain.
Timestamping and the Origins of Blockchain
The concept of timestamping is incredibly simple. Every piece of content gets a unique ID code, generated by parts of its content, like a title or the text. This unique ID code, or a hash, is then added to the blockchain, which is a public, decentralized, transparent ledger. That hash represents the original piece of content, and if the original content is changed, the hash changes, showing it’s a different version.
There’s no taking the time to register each piece of content as it’s published, either. Hash generation and pushing to the blockchain can happen immediately upon publication via code behind-the-scenes.
This was actually the original reason why blockchain technology was invented. It’s generally presumed that blockchain technology was created by Satoshi Nakamoto in his white paper that created Bitcoin in 2008. But he was citing a paper from 1991 that was the original proposal for blockchain, which was a way to timestamp documents securely and transparently to protect against alteration or plagiarism, and to increase accountability.
The Internet’s Broken Integrity
It’s the same issue we’re dealing with today. There’s no internet standard for knowing for sure who wrote an article, when it was written, and if it’s the original text. A website might have the byline and the date it was published, but can that be trusted? If someone sources an article and goes back to find it’s changed, but they can’t tell what’s been changed, when, or by whom, does that article still have merit? And what about the smaller websites that have not just ideas but whole pieces stolen and published by bigger sites?
This lack of standard extends to other content like images, video, and music as well. Is this image real, or was it a screenshot and posted without the author’s permission? Was it Photoshopped? Is this video shot with the real people, or is it a deep fake? There’s a whole system of broken integrity when it comes to content on the internet. But it can be fixed.
How Timestamping Can Save Us
There are a number of benefits and reassurances that timestamping can provide for both readers and content creators alike.
Timestamping sets the original author and content in stone and writes it to the unchangeable blockchain, where it’s verified. Because you can’t change a block, authorship is certified and provable and provides another level of transparency to content on the internet.
Timestamping can also track versioning. Because the unique hash changes when content is changed, a reader can see all the different versions of the document: when it was changed, what was actually changed, and who changed it.
Readers are able to view timestamping certificates on every piece of content they read, which gives them confidence in knowing where it came from, and who wrote it first.
Timestamping puts an end to copyright disputes because the original piece of content can be called up on the blockchain. This will give smaller sites the ownership they deserve over their own content, and will allow them to fight big sites that steal their content without any lawyer fees. They simply send the proof of timestamping. This will help increase accountability and honesty amongst content creators.
Timestamping can also carry an authorship fingerprint with it as well, where the author can limit distribution, or say their content can only be published on certain sites. And if the content is published outside of that permission, then it can’t be authenticated.
The same goes for images and videos. If the owner of the content, or the person in the image or video, doesn’t authorize it, then it wouldn’t be considered trustworthy. This could virtually eliminate image doctoring or deep fakes from spreading their misinformation.
Timestamping is considered structured data, which helps search engines rank a website. The more structured data a website can provide, the better the results, so timestamping actually improves SEO.
Finally, wide adoption of timestamping — which is a fairly easy thing to accomplish — sets an internet standard around transparency and accountability. Readers will look for timestamping, and sites that use timestamping will be considered credible, with nothing to hide. It’ll be the content that is not timestamped that will be suspect. And there could come a time when we’re able to set our browser filters to never even see non-timestamped content.
The fight against fake news and fraud on the internet can be solved by increasing transparency and accountability around the content found there. It all starts with a simple timestamp certificate. So can you trust what you read on the internet? Someday we’ll all be able to say a confident “Yes.”