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How blockchain was deployed to combat Chinese censorship in a #MeToo moment


Blockchain has found its new application in China — combating censorship.

It all started with a #MeToo moment at a school campus in China. Xin Yue, a senior at the prestigious Peking University, and seven students filed a request for information disclosure on a sexual harassment case involving a former professor. Yue was not involved in the case which took place more than 20 years ago.

Then things turned sour. In an open letter on Monday, Yue accused the school of trying to silence her, making her delete information about the request and even asking her parents to confine her to her home.

The letter went viral on social media in China, including Tencent’s WeChat and the Twitter-like Weibo, but it soon got removed for “violating rules.” People found workarounds to avoid censorship, putting the text into an image. Frustrated by the censorship, some people turned to blockchain technology — encoding the English and Chinese version of the letter on the Ethereum blockchain, which cost about 50 cents.

The blockchain represents a decentralized ledger that constantly tracks all transactions. It’s distributed on thousands of computers across the globe, which work together to validate and store transactions. People are able to include extra data in their blockchain transaction, in this case, Yue’s open letter.

Blockchains are designed to be immutable. Only a party controlling more than 50% of the network’s computing power can change the transaction and attached information, which is not very likely. So people expect “no one can change the letter and everyone can read it,” according to a WeChat post.

From wedding vows to anti-censorship tool

Chinese internet users have seen posts referring to the country’s #MeToo movement disappear from WeChat, Weibo, and other popular social networks in recent weeks. (Quartz)
Chinese internet users have seen posts referring to the country’s #MeToo movement disappear from WeChat, Weibo, and other popular social networks in recent weeks. (Quartz)

People have been using the proof-of-existence capability of the blockchain to store information for a while now. For example, Smart Vows is a web service that enables people to encode marriage certificates into the Ethereum blockchain.

Ever since blockchain went mainstream and became a major application for cryptocurrencies, blockchain has rediscovered an effective tool to dodge online censorship in China. The blockchain transaction with Yue’s letter embedded in it has gathered nearly 200 comments, most of which praising the innovation of the method.

“We should put our constitution on the blockchain, so no one can change it,” one user wrote, implying the controversial move China made last month to abolish presidential term limits.

But compared to regulated social media platforms which have millions of users, the impact of writing on blockchain is relatively contained. However, if it gains steam, the government could still impose the Great Firewall, which restricts Chinese netizens access to websites like it has done to block Google and Facebook in Mainland China.

China has been cracking down on cryptocurrency since last September, citing the risks it brings to the financial system. But so far, the government has shown a relatively open attitude toward blockchain. China’s central bank has put extensive resources in blockchain research and Chinese tech giant Alibaba hosts the most blockchain patents in the world by the end of 2017, according to incoShare, a Beijing-based patent information provider.

Krystal Hu is a technology and economy reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter

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