Fixing the Problem of State Public Records with Arweave
“We made a mistake”, admitted the US National Archives in 2020, having being caught altering an image under its care.
Most democratic countries in the world have laws regarding Freedom Of Information – citizens want to know how the people in power are acting, and what decisions they are making for them. These freedom of information policies are what outline how and when citizens gain access to the information and documents used and handled by the governments. One reason these laws exist is to allow access to otherwise classified information, but they aren’t always airtight. This is a story of the broken archival system in the US, and how an uncensorable public ledger could be the solution.
USA and NARA
In the USA, up until 1934, each branch of the US government was responsible for keeping and preserving their own records. In 1934 the National Archives Establishment was created as a single central place to keep all records. This was merged with the General Services Administration (GSA) in 1949 and remained merged until 1984 before it split off and became the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
The NARA holds all the US’s classified information. When it is released for public consumption, it becomes part of the US National Archives. On December 31st 2009, a large amount of documents were to be declassified which lead to Executive Order 13526 being issued by then-President Barack Obama just 2 days prior in order to prevent this.
This decision may have been made with good intentions to protect information that could hinder the US government or endanger its people. However, the fact is the same – the people in power were able to make last minute decisions to withhold information from their people for a longer period of time.
The National Archive controversy
The National Archives has seen controversy before for altering information. And, the edits they made were put on display for all to see.
In 2020, a reporter visiting a National Archives exhibit noticed a photograph that had been put up that showed a 2017 Women’s Rights march that took place in Washington. The march took place on Pennsylvania Avenue, the same street where a women’s suffrage march had been in 1913.
The National Archives made it so that from one viewing perspective you could see the 2017 image, and from another you could see the 1913 image. But, what they also did was alter the 2017 image.
The 2017 march took place one day after the inauguration of president Donald Trump. This lead to many people marching to be holding up signs stating just how they felt about the president. The National Archives made the decision to edit the photo at their own choosing and to blur out certain messages from it. They later issues an apology about this:
We made a mistake.
As the National Archives of the United States, we are and have always been completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration. pic.twitter.com/VTWOS4R7GY
— US National Archives (@USNatArchives) January 18, 2020
Even though the National Archives stated that the image was not one officially held and preserved by themselves, it does raise the question of what else could be potentially altered by an agency whose sole purpose is to preserve unaltered data.
Current waiting time: 30 years
There is usually a timeframe within which government documents will remain classified before then being released to the public. In the UK, for example, this timeframe is 30 years. It is know as the thirty-year rule. This was only reduced to 30 years from a higher 50 years in 1968 after the Public Records Act 1967 was passed.
It seems that having centralised authorities handle all these documents for such a large amount of time could bring a plethora of problems. You could see loss of documents due to hardware failure. In the case of physical documents, there could be loss due to a fire or flood.
In 1978 a fire broke out at one of the National Archives and Records Service’s complexes in Suitland, Maryland, USA, destroying 12.6 million feet of newsreel footage that had been donated to them by Universal Pictures. The footage was held on a nitrate-based film that is extremely flammable. Accidents, or worse, deliberate destruction can occur. The fate of The Library Of Alexandria will forever remind us of this.
Over a long period of time, amendments to current Acts and laws might take place. Add on top of this the fact that there are multiple different government employees that handle this centralised data, and have to determine what is classified as secret or top secret, what has to be censored and what can and cannot be released to the public (or must be removed from a publicly released document) and you can see that errors might start to occur.
Arweave fixes the fragility and corruptibility of public archives
Maybe having all these documents and government officials’ comms on a database that cannot be altered is the way to preserve true permanence of data. Arweave would be able to offer this, as anything stored is permanent and immutable.
By using Arweave as a true means of permanence for official documents, the public would be sure to receive all data unaltered. Data would also never be at risk of being lost, as it doesn’t reside in a centralised archive somewhere, but on a decentralised network that is secured by an incentivized network of nodes.
Some issues with privacy might need to be addressed before this is 100% feasible. However, protocols like Sarcophagus DAO can help. With Sarcophagus DAO we could see a future where official government documents and any other official papers are encrypted and stored on Arweave and would then be decrypted and released to the public on a specific date, unaltered. It would provide more accountability for the actions of the people at the helm of our governments.
Even though we may not be able to see all documents, and we may not be able to see them until after a certain time period, we could have better peace of mind knowing that, most likely, the right decisions were being made in the present, as no one person would want to be held accountable in the future for bad decisions they made for their people.
The days of secrets and lies would hopefully be a thing of the past. Or at least be addressed to a certain degree.
Maybe the day will come where we not only see all public records reside on Arweave, but we see entire governments operating as DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) where citizens would get to vote on all matters and decisions at question. However, even if this were the case, it is highly likely that a government DAO won’t come any time soon as it would mean a complete redefining of how an entire government works.