Executive Summary

All too often blockchain startup ideas don’t really need blockchain. Data integrity is the main benefit conferred by blockchain technology so blockchain makes sense when a company or project has data that is valuable or unique in a way that gives outsiders sufficient economic incentives to launch attacks to try and corrupt or otherwise change it. That’s why a recent use of blockchain technology in China by the #MeToo movement is so interesting. In late 2017, increasing number of stories were being shared on Chinese social media surrounding sexual harassment and abuse of position in Chinese universities. The Chinese government and technology platforms made repeated attempts to filter out such stories by censoring a variety of hashtags and keywords that campaigners used on Weibo and Wechat. As a result, campaigners turned to blockchain technology to record their stories under the name “Every Snowflake”. This is a use-case that fulfills the three criteria outlined above. Victims desperately want to not be censored; other parties have a deep interest in censoring them; and people can only find value in stories of discrimination if they have not been censored. 

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One of our main jobs when teaching and advising students who are thinking of founding blockchain companies is to get them to question whether or not their idea actually requires it. Data integrity is the main benefit conferred by blockchain technology, and a few questions can help determine whether that’s a particular problem for a given business or use case:

  1. If the data that my business collects is corrupted, how much do people suffer?
  2. Do outsiders (perhaps hackers) have incentives to distort or change the data that my business is based upon?
  3. How much does my business depend on other people being able to trust the data on which it is built?

Take for example, a digital currency — the first use-case for blockchain. There, if data is corrupted or distorted by outsiders, people lose real money, and the outsider who corrupts the data gains money, making such attacks plausible and to be feared. Therefore, no one will adopt a digital currency unless they can trust their data will not be corrupted or distorted. In other words, there’s at least a plausible reason why you’d want blockchain technology managing currency transactions.

However, all too often blockchain startup ideas don’t really need blockchain. Their data really isn’t that valuable or unique in a way that gives outsiders sufficient economic incentives to launch attacks to try and corrupt or otherwise change it. That’s why a recent use of blockchain technology in China in response to the #MeToo movement is so interesting.

In late 2017, increasing number of stories were being shared on Chinese social media surrounding sexual harassment and abuse of position in Chinese universities. At first, the movement was called woyeshi, the Chinese spelling of “Me Too.”  The Chinese government and technology platforms made repeated attempts to filter out such stories by censoring a variety of hashtags and keywords that campaigners used on Weibo and Wechat. First, woyeshi was censored, and then #MeToo, and finally “Rice Bunny”, which has the same pronunciation as “Me Too” in Chinese. As a result, campaigners turned to blockchain technology to record their stories under the name “Every Snowflake.” This website simply uses a blockchain ledger process to record stories about sexual harassment.

This is a use-case that fulfills the three criteria outlined above. Victims desperately want to not be censored; other parties have a deep interest in censoring them; and people can only find value in stories of discrimination if they have not been censored. “Every Snowflake” is a compelling case where blockchain helped people overcome a real problem of data integrity.

However, this project also highlights some of the challenges of using blockchain technology.

The general weakness of using blockchain lies in its interface with other technologies and the rest of the world. I’ve written before about blockchain’s  “last mile problem.” In this case, the “last mile” challenge comes from the fact that it is still possible to restrict access to data built on the blockchain — for example, by banning the website that displays it.

Last, perhaps the biggest challenge to our privacy lives in the fact that digital data usually lives forever unless someone makes strenuous efforts to delete it. Blockchain is even more extreme; it nearly guarantees the data lives forever. Corrections can’t be made. Stories can’t be modified. This raises challenges. What do libel suits look like when records can’t be deleted from the blockchain? What about the “right to be forgotten” that is built into privacy policy in some countries? In the case of sexual harassment, these aren’t just questions of protecting the accused. What if a victim comes to regret making a statement publicly and wants to withdraw it, perhaps to protect their privacy or even their safety?

Nonetheless, “Every Snowflake” hints at the possibilities of blockchain in our “post-truth” world. Not every interesting idea or business proposal requires the blockchain. But where data integrity is essential, it can be transformative.

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