Can a blockchain timestamp help rebuild trust in web content?

Driven by fake news or skewed by underlying motivations, consumer trust in web content is deteriorating – can blockchain help?
4 August 2020

Blockchain could help restore trust online. Source: Shutterstock

  • In the era of fake news, consumer trust in web content is deteriorating
  • As internet users and consumption continues to rise, the problem will only get worse
  • Blockchain-stored timestamps could offer one solution to ensure web content is accountable and transparent

Whether we are actively seeking it, or simply scrolling down our news feeds, we’re bombarded by information everyday online. It comes in the form of YouTube how-to videos, Wikipedia entries, endless news reports, social media posts, forums, official webpages and, well, countless other forms.

And while it gives us access to a universe of facts, opinions, advice and research, the internet is not an environment that’s ever really been architected in way that helps to generate trust.

Arguably, or perhaps obviously, a lot of what we take to be ‘the truth’ online is driven by content creators’ motivations. According to an anonymous professor cited by Pew Research, “two major forces are working against trust” online. One is corporations – they care about trust and security to some extent, but their interests are not aligned with those of consumers. The second is bad actors who attack individuals and systems and will always be a step ahead of any possible security measures.

As internet usage continues to surge with hundreds of millions, if not more than a billion more users likely to join those online by 2026, interactions will increase, in turn hiking the chance of more criminal exploits, more data breaches, more privacy invasions, more trolling, and more ‘fake news’. With about 29% of Europeans suspicious of the internet, and more than three quarters (86%) having fallen for fake news at least once, the huge and powerful resource of data we have access to – at the swipe of a screen of the click of a mouse – is generating some real and worsening trust issues, and that’s not great for anyone. 

In an interview with TechHQ, Sebastiaan van der Lans, founder of Wordproof, explained how his company is exploring how to restore trust and transparency into the internet using blockchain. According to van der Lans, the internet “needs a layer of trust,” and that must come from transparency into information published online, and accountability for that content.

WordProof is addressing this problem by enabling publishers of content online to add a unique signature: Every time you click on a post, or every time you publish a post or update, a unique hash, a unique fingerprint of that post will be added to a blockchain transaction. And in that way, you can always prove that that content existed in that specific moment of time,” van der Lans explained.

Once that timestamp is added to the blockchain, it can’t be removed or altered by anyone, ever – ownership of the information, and its history, will be securely stored and available to anyone that wants to validate it.

What does this mean for enterprises?

Access to a history of edits and information regarding the original publisher can help to renew trust for users, and may encourage web publishers to think twice before they put words out into the ether. But WordProof’s technology also has some practical implications for enterprises, particularly when it comes to copyright processes, circumventing the need to use a notary, which can cost around US$1000 for a single request and take a significant amount of time.

“While it may make sense to go to a notary when multi-million dollar contracts are involved but for large volumes of online content that require quick publication, that requires a different set of evaluations to consider.” Instead, “for a few cents per timestamp, [proof of existence] can happen in less than a second,” said van der Lans. 

In the retail sector, meanwhile, time-stamping content could “level the playing field between the seller and the buyer,” said van der Lans, as it develops trust and transparency among merchants and consumers. Online vendors wouldn’t be able to tamper with product terms and conditions, and consumers wouldn’t need to rely on the ‘good graces’ of online merchants when asking for a refund or exchange within the warranty period.

Timestamps can also help combat search engine fraud, where the date of an article is changed and the article gains an advantage against more recent competitors. This is an issue that Google and many other search engines are unable to solve. “If you play around with your dates, you rank a bit higher than your competition, but if you don’t do it and your competitors do, then you have a disadvantage,” van der Lans said. 

In the last five years, there has been an 83% hike in the number of internet users, and users will continue to snowball in the years to come, flooding the internet with incrementally more content and data.

Van der Lans believes that time-stamping web content and storing it on the blockchain will become table-stakes in the years to come and play a fundamental role in ensuring consumers trust what they’re consuming online. He paraphrases industry peer Brendan Blumer, the CEO of Block.One: “In five years from now, if you don’t timestamp your articles on the blockchain, you’re going to be considered a fraud […] you’re going to be considered a revisionist or someone that censors material.”