How Permaweb Takes Power from Despots and Strengthens Freedom of Speech
By the last week of June 2021, Apple Daily, a pro-democracy media outlet in Hong Kong that was critical of the Chinese government, could no longer withstand the heat. Apple Daily’s bank accounts were frozen and its owner and staff members had been arrested on allegations of breaking the China-imposed national security law. It had to pull the plug on its print and online platforms after 26 years of operation.
As emotional farewells to the newspaper poured in, some activists and individuals made last minute efforts to archive contents on the website for future reference before they were taken down.
“History must not be determined by those in power,” Kin Ko, a programmer, told Reuters in June.
Indeed, information has public value that makes it important for them to outlive individuals and organisations that held or authored them. Dissidents, activists and organisations that serve as societal watch dogs, including the media, are increasingly targeted by repressive and propaganda driven governments for the information they have and the work they do. Such a government strives to control the flow of information from the media to the public.
With the launch of the internet in the 1990s, came a promise of freedom and opportunity to reach more people across the globe. But this promise has over time been curtailed by hacking, filtering and censorship by data breaching criminal syndicates and governments many of whom are notorious for human rights abuses and corruption and will ensure that restrictions are in place.
For example, in 2014 many media organisations including the Associated Press, The Guardian and The Financial Times were hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army. In the same year, a humanitarian organisation, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and media outlets such as Vice, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal were hacked by Worm, a Russian hacker group. In Nigeria, Peoples Gazette, a media outlet, had to change its website address in early 2021 after a government agency ordered major internet service providers in the country to block access to its online platform.
When attacks are not from an external entity, an organisation’s online platforms could be sabotaged internally; a compromised staff of an organisation could delete or alter an online content just as owners of websites or online platforms could remove content without the authors’ permission in order to avoid confrontations with the authorities.
History disappears – sometimes forever – when important websites or their content cannot be accessed either because of censorship or broken links. Broken link or link rot occurs when a web-page cannot be found or accessed by users.
David Hundeyin, an investigative journalist in Nigeria and founder of the West Africa Weekly, who prefers to embed and include web links in his works, described broken links as “frustrating.”
“Sometimes web links become broken or dead due to the website in question having undergone reorganisation or being defunct. Sometimes the subjects of the investigation work very hard to scrub their internet footprint and erase all evidence of events that happened…” Hundeyin told Arweave News.
“There is also a measure of excitement because more often than not, if entities have gone through the trouble of trying to get things deleted off the internet that could mean that the data in question could be very interesting and useful.”
Although organisations, such as the media are not likely to permanently shut down because of systems sabotage through hacking, their operations could end due to bad management that results in insolvency and attacks by restrictive governments masking their intentions with hurriedly-set up laws.
Broken links, filtering, hacking and censorship show that the regular internet does not guarantee long lasting existence for online content. Web pages have an average lifespan of 100 days. In the 1990s it was 44 days.
For organisations and individuals who have content with public importance including those that hold governments and power groups and firms to account, regular internet is not capable of giving their works perpetuity even if they cease to exist.
Founded by Arweave in 2019 by two PhD dropouts, William Jones and Sam Williams, the permaweb is a permanent, decentralised storage system where a collection of data cannot be lost, altered or intentionally deleted.
The idea was born in 2016 during the United States Presidential Election when fake news was ubiquitous. Williams observed that there was no way to determine the authenticity of contents if centralised media outlets could furtively remove or edit contents on their platforms. Existing web archives such as the Wayback Machine could be forced by the government or court to take down contents.
The permaweb operates on a structure called blockweave which operates like blockchain in cryptocurrency but better because it executes more transactions per seconds. Immutability and decentralisation, some of the key features of blockweave prevent censorship and deliberate alterations to stored contents.
Websites and contents on the permaweb are stored in their original format with time stamps and details of the owner on different computers across the globe in the Arweave network and can be accessed through normal internet browsers.
The absence of a central system of storage and the availability of multiple copies of stored contents make it impossible for governments to censor contents and for dead links to occur. Backed by advanced technology, the Arweave network is sustained through a reward mechanism where miners are incentivised to store data permanently.
The possibility of storing data in the permaweb for two centuries with a one-time fee, takes away the burden of periodic renewal fees from users who seek permanence for their data and helps organisations to maintain online presence even if they cease to exist as an entire website, apps and other contents can be migrated to the permaweb storage.
Compared to fees charged by other decentralised platforms, including Filecoin and Storj and cloud-based storage platforms such as Amazon Web Service (AWS) and Google Cloud, storing data on Arweave is economical while offering more.
Arweave’s permaweb offers permanent storage unlike other decentralised storage platforms. In addition to not offering perpetual data storage, cloud-based platforms are centralised, a feature which could put the system out of action. AWS’s three outages in December 2021 for instance, crippled the operations of companies such as Slack, Asana and Netflix. A central source also makes storage platforms vulnerable to court orders or government intimidation.
By maintaining an endowment fund made up of a portion of fees users pay to store data, while the rest is paid to miners as reward, Arweave is able to guarantee that data will be stored permanently and sustainably and at no cost to access the data.
History has shown over time, that freedom, a promise by the regular internet, is prone to attacks by repressive governments and other entities who feel threatened by it. Current global socio-economic and political happenings underscore the crucial role of freedom — in any form — in people’s efforts to demand justice and accountability. The permaweb is poised to deliver real freedom.