While the jury is still out on digital currencies, the underlying technology blockchain has the potential to disrupt all parts of the media value chain through disaggregation, digital rights management, and royalty tracking.

Blockchain-enabled identity solutions could help battle fake news, re-establish trust in the authenticity of comment fields, and create entirely new business areas for media actors. In a live Webinar for INMA members on Wednesday, Stefan Farestam, co-founder of Carechain in Sweden, led participants through a deep look at where blockchain intersects with media and how that can affect publishers in various ways.

“Blockchain is very different from all other systems in existence today in that it’s being shared, it’s being distributed, and it’s possible to scrutinize and make sure, yourself, that all the information actually makes sense and integrity is maintained,” Farestam explained.

Stefan Farestam of Carechain explains how blockchain works in an INMA Webinar.
Stefan Farestam of Carechain explains how blockchain works in an INMA Webinar.

So how does this apply to news media publishers? Farestam illustrated this with a “Proof of Secret Information” slide. The sequence of events goes like this:

  • A publisher has a piece of content.
  • A fingerprint (hash) is created from the content and stored on the blockchain. The content itself is stored outside the blockchain.
  • At a later time, when the company needs to prove that it held this information at an earlier time, it can be used to create the same hash that is stored on the blockchain.
Proof of secret information helps publishers confirm that information is true and verified.
Proof of secret information helps publishers confirm that information is true and verified.

“You make a new hash of the document that you disclosed, and anyone can then verify that this document corresponds to the hash that was previously published,” Farestam explained. “This is a core function that is being used in a lot of business situations, on top of the blockchain.”

New information is also constantly added to the blockchain. In the bitcoin project, this is called “proof of work.”

“The cryptographic puzzle that they’re solving is quite intense and energy consuming, “ Farestam said. “They consume about .3% of the world’s electricity today, which is a huge amount. Complete assets of bitcoin now are in excess of $100 billion USD.”

The permission question

Proof of work, however, is not the only way to do this. “Largely you can classify blockchain networks into permissionless and permissioned networks,” Farestam said.

Permissionless means that any party can join the network and then validate the information. “That’s when you need these intricate mechanisms to make sure no one is cheating. Proof of work is one of them; proof of stake is another one. Proof of stake essentially means that the party validating has assets as well — meaning that if they do not behave correctly, they lose those assets.”

Farestam said this is equivalent to an accountant being required to put up $100,000 of their own money; and if they’re caught cheating, they lose that money.

In permissioned networks, companies can be more lax about security, and they don’t consume more energy than any other computer programme. It can be limited to a set number of actors and not the public at large.

Why data on a blockchain?

There are several reasons to keep data on a blockchain, Farestam shared:

  • Timestamped: provable timing for all content.
  • No super-user: no priveleged access mode.
  • User in control: user controls all access.
  • Immutable: content cannot be changed.
  • Distributed: no single point of failure.
  • Smart contracts: programmable functionality.

“You actually have a public way of time-stamping information, and that’s incredibly difficult to do in normal networks,” Farestam said. To show that a clock on a specific computer has not been altered when a document was added to it is not easy to prove in traditional systems before blockchain.

Once information has been added, it cannot be changed. If a piece of information is wrong, it is not changed; rather a corrected piece of information is added later. The user is in complete control, and there is no “super-user” who has any special access. “There’s no single actor who can behave badly and disturb the whole network,” Farestam said.

In some of the most popular blockchains, such as Theorem, there is a concept called smart contracts. This means you can add programmatic behaviour to the blockchain — for example, how revenue is distributed. “It’s a really clever way of adding more functionality to blockchain network.”

Data provenance

Blockchain offers a strong possibility for proving data provenance. “You can prove when data was put on the blockchain, where it came from, and what was contained on that document at the moment the hash was published on the blockchain,” Farestam said.

Srong support for data provenance includes:

  • Verifiable timestamp.
  • Identity of source (digital signature).
  • Fingerprint (hash) of content.

This can prove:

  1. When the data was stored.
  2. Where it came from.
  3. What was contained.

Cyber security

Farestam said he would argue that this is the strongest distributed system today — there are no known hacker attacks and all the data is open source. “If you think about virtually any other enterprise system, there is no way you have access to both the source code and the data in the system.”

Strong security features:

  • All data is encrypted.
  • No global keys.
  • Data must be accessed with a user’s individual key.
  • Designated people can jointly help to restitute a lost key, which is done with smart contracts on the platform.

Trust boundaries

“One of the main problems that we’re addressing with blockchain is the issue of trust boundaries,” Farestam said. “You have a number of different organisations that do not fundamentally trust each other. That means we have a lot of extra code that is being kept at each organisation to verify that each information is being transacted correctly.”

With trust being a key factor in media's relationship with its audience, blockchain can establish trust boundaries.
With trust being a key factor in media's relationship with its audience, blockchain can establish trust boundaries.

Introducing a blockchain means there is a single source of truth that multiple parties rely on, resulting in:

  • Agreement on truth across trust boundaries; i.e., “what I see is what you see.”
  • No extra verifications required.
  • Significant reduction of process complexity and costs.

“There’s no other separately maintained truth that’s going on, so it’s great for settling information between multiple parties,” Farestam said. 

Applications for media

Farestam outlined three major areas in which blockchain can be applied to media organisations:

  • Digital Rights Management (DRM): Creators could use blockchain to manage a list of those who can view their content; under which conditions, they could do away with third-party DRM systems.
  • Royalty tracking: Smart blockchain contracts could ensure that everyone involved in the creation of a piece of content will get their share of any revenue generated from it.
  • Micropayments: Blockchain-powered digital currencies could be used to facilitate micropayments for digital content without expensive credit card fees.

“We see different and new pricing options for the paid content,” Farestam said. “Since we can have more effective micro-payments, we can have different ways of offering payment for users. They are inefficient today, but with blockchain network could become a lot more efficient.”

Bypassing aggregators and distributors is another benefit: “The network can make that link more automatic, and make the payment more automatic.” However, this also means the opposite, Farestam noted, as it also makes it easier for the intermediaries to extend the reach of their information.

Revenue distribution becomes easier, as well as monetisation and consumption of the content without borders.

“In essence, quite a wide set of possibilities here for blockchain to affect the media value chain,” Farestam said.

Blockchain-based media solutions

Farestam then took a look at blockchain solutions available right now, including Civil. This decentralised marketplace for sustainable journalism has some far-reaching ambitions to create a new media landscape.

“Their vision is to empower journalists by being paid through a token system, so that users can pay for content, but they can also support the creation of news by donating money.”

Another organisation Farestam likes is po.et Proof of Existence 2.0: “They have focused in specifically on managing the rights to a specific piece of content ... ensuring, for the publishers, a much more secure chain of delivery of the content.”

Po.et also has a token system, giving it a marketplace for information. “All in all, it’s much more of an infrastructure approach for enabling a lot of solutions,” Farestam said. “Using po.et for example, you could have a Web site that dynamically creates content depending on who the user is and pay only for those articles that are actually being shown to the user. That payment is being issued directly as the user clicks on the site. As well, they also have a system where the publisher of information can declare on which type of sites their content is allowed.”

Another solution is Steem, which is powered by smart media tokens. Steem is essentially a blogging platform in which the content creators are paid.

Applications other than print and digital media are also using blockchain technology, including those in music and video networks.

Vevnue is a video network that uses blockchain.
Vevnue is a video network that uses blockchain.

“Today there are a large number of projects going on,” Farestam said. “Some with high-profile backers; some that are more experimental in nature. They’re exploring different ways that the blockchain can be used in the media chain, to empower both producers and consumers — and creating new and very creative ways of monetising.”

Identity

To get started with blockchain, Farestam said a media organisation needs a concept of identity. In fact, identity is a major business challenge. Facebook, for example, has closed one billion fake accounts in just six months.

“This has hurt some companies quite severely,” Farestam said. “An identity is a very tricky thing. Ensuring that an individual is really who she claims she is, that is a very difficult thing to do today. And that affects a lot of different media solutions where we need to use credibility and trust in the production of information — as well as ensuring that the consumer is who she claims to be.”

So, how do you address that? Farestam introduced the concept of blockchain-based identity as a new type of solution. This is based on ethereum programmatic blockchain, which is simply a distributed infrastructure with joint ownership and control. It’s done with an initiative called uport, which is a self-sovereign identity standard.

The United Nations introduced this with an initiative called ID2020, which attempts to give each individual on earth an identity by 2020.

“The idea is that you have a concept called ‘Verified Claims,’” Farestam said, noting the concept itself is not all that new. “An authority can issue an electronic claim to an individual, and that claim can then be shown to a third party to show that certain claimed features are actually correct.”

As an example of a practical application, today when an individual signs up at a certain Web site, they must enter all their personal information such as name, e-mail, security questions, etc. In contrast, this new digital Verified Claim would already have all this in place, resolving trust and making the process easier. The publisher would suggest what type of information the user could share, but the user would ultimately decide.

“I’m thinking here ... you could then have assurance, for example if you go to Facebook, that individuals are truly who they are,” Farestam said. “Linked to this is an advanced cryptographical approach called ‘Zero Knowledge Proof,’ which allows for you to prove certain property without disclosing it.”

Though Farestam said this proven digital identity isn’t directly to do with blockchain, it makes a perfect combination with it.

Fighting fake news

This problem is one blockchain and identity can be instrumental in helping media companies address with their audience. Blockchain enables media companies to:

  • Verify the source of content.
  • Verify that content has not been altered.
  • Verify identity of sources and referred content.
  • Provide an open audit chain that tracks all content changes.
  • Identify that images are used correctly.

“I think that blockchain can be used in combination with AI methodology,” Farestam said. “Since the blockchain can provide us the traceability, the verification properties, identity of the different assets. Then if you add Artificial Intelligence and machine learning on top of this, we can also do analytics on this to see if a piece of content is referred to incorrectly. So my opinion is that blockchain could provide us a very good underpinning of fighting fake news.”

Advertising

One approach to this through blockchain technology is to pay the user for viewing the information, including advertising. “The approach here is using something called basic attention token,” Farestam said. He referenced a new browser called Brave, which rewards users for viewing certain content and can track that the user is actually watching or reading the content.

“How this plays out remains to be seen,” Farestam said. “But I think we will see this more and more — the combination of clever uses of the blockchain at the core, together with smart software, and introducing new mechanisms that we haven’t really seen before.”

In contrast with most mechanisms, blockchain actually allows for a number of parties to synchronise over the network in a distributed fashion.

“That’s really what makes blockchain unique here. What the internet enabled was for information to be shared with other parties. But what blockchain enables is distribution of transactions among multiple parties without a central intermediary. We don’t need to have a bank vault; therefore we can build these systems with transactions between individuals that don’t involve any centralised infrastructure. That’s exactly why I think we’ll see a lot of creativity like this and new solutions.”

In conclusion, Farestam left Webinar viewers with these summarised points:

  • Blockchain is real.
  • Blockchain solutions for media are in operation today.
  • Blockchain will affect the complete media value chain — though exactly how and how much, we don’t yet know.

“I think it will have quite a significant impact,” Farestam said. The problem with such new and changing technology is that too often we don’t know enough about these things until it’s too late.

“So in my opinion it makes a lot of sense to learn more about blockchain today, learn more about those solutions that are actually in existence today, and see how it could affect your operations,” Farestam advised. “See if maybe there are initiatives that you could get engaged in today to be at the forefront of this — so that when it affects you, you’re part of changing it rather than having blockchain change your operations in a way that you have control over.”