Blockchain messaging promises ‘the unerasable internet’
Thu 18 Dec 2014
Krzysztof Okupski, the creator of the Bitcoin Developer Reference has developed a messaging tool using the ‘blockchain’ technology which underpins Bitcoin, effectively a communications system whereby messages can neither be blocked nor amended later. Such a system could potentially avoid censorship, retroactive or otherwise, by governments or by less authorised hackers.
The project was inspired by the 25-year-old student’s graduation supervisor, Dr Boris Škorić of the Eindhoven University of Technology, who considered the possibility of blockchain-based communication as a potential benefit to dissidents and other activists whose digital voices are often forced into unconventional channels by the threat of digital suppression at a national or local level.
“Due to the humanitarian nature of the project,” Okupski explains. “I immediately agreed that it was a good idea and went to work.”
Okupski contends that the messaging system’s binding to the blockchain ledger transaction system will mean that governments blocking the protocol will also have to block Bitcoin – which might be a contentious issue if it, or a similar cryptocurrency using the same core ledger system, continues to gain traction globally. Okupski argues that “Binding a payments network like Bitcoin together with an anti-censorship system forces any repressive government to either accept or abandon both.”
Okupski is leaving the thesis project – which can not only store messages in the blockchain but can link them together in forum-style threads – as proof-of-concept work for the time being, with the hope that it will be picked up in the near future. What distinguishes his implementation of a Bitcoin/blockchain messaging system from the likes of CryptoGraffiti and others is that it requires small Bitcoin payments for the messages to enter the blockchain, instead of creating non-spendable Bitcoin outputs that are destined to vanish from the system.
The problems of ‘expanding’ the blockchain
Permanence and continuity are at the heart of cryptocurrencies; if non-financial data becomes attached to actual transaction data, it has the best bodyguard information can possibly have – the security, priority, programming effort and sheer global will that goes into preserving records of the movement of money.
It is a powerful idea in a time of numerous powerful new ideas (such as songwriting royalty/credit schemes, a document copyrighting service or DNA storage) that are utilising or seeking to utilise the non-financial potential of blockchain – and it is faced with the same infrastructure problems as most of the others. One of these hinderances is the relative inflexibility of the blockchain format, which is dictated by the need for performance; since you cannot build a skyscraper on foundations designed to support an ordinary house, the house would have to come down first. In terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which rely on blockchain’s long and intractable memory, ‘Blockchain 2’ would be tantamount to a ‘financial reset’ in an economic and development climate which is very reluctant to amend Bitcoin’s internal structure at such a critical point in its progress.
To maintain the integrity of the central blockchain, the more ambitious of the new schemes ‘hitch a ride’ on it, or use hash-based points of attachment inside the blockchain to create ‘side chains‘. Bitcoin operates at a scale where it has to pack its bags as carefully as an astronaut; if latency and performance are not to degrade further, every byte matters. This was demonstrated by the dispute between financial trading platform Counterparty and Bitcoin’s protocol developers earlier this year, when the latter slashed the storage capacity of the new OP_RETURN container from 80 to 40 bytes. Not kilobytes – bytes; enough of a reduction on the original plan to force Counterparty to seek new and technically unsuitable places to stow away its data in the scant topography of the blockchain, such as within the recent multi-signature feature, which was implemented to facilitate escrow-style payments.
There is genuine potential to use Bitcoin as a mule, effectively, for an entirely new layer of the internet, with compressed hashes spreading outward to external storage systems and other information protocols
Even without expanding the infrastructure of the blockchain, the prospect of ‘blockchain bloat’ is a genuine threat to uptake of the young protocol. Blockchain already has latency issues (which, for instance, render it a poor prospect for real-time stock-trading), and its uptake and diversification will, like the Tor and torrent protocols, eventually require a higher number of users who actually contribute uptime on the network instead of just utilising it and then turning it off; these ‘node-donating’ givers are called ‘miners’ in the Bitcoin structure, and, unlike those who contribute cycles to Tor and Torrent, the rewards are not entirely abstract, but include entry into a ‘Bitcoin lottery’.
Krzysztof Okupski admits that his blockchain dissident-messaging scheme might contribute to blockchain bloat if it should become very popular, and that the cost of a message (currently equivalent to roughly 25 cents USD, or about 15 pence in pounds sterling) could rise if zealous use were to raise the mining costs of the transactions.
Okupski’s system uses text-compression to keep its content within the core Bitcoin blockchain, but side-chains do not have the same ‘golden pass’ which the central blockchain is currently earning itself in the network entry points of nations worldwide. Therefore Bitcoin’s robust memory could become a little ‘selective’ for applications or methods which are using Bitcoin’s limited store of space as an index to external services. This could be obviated by connecting hashes to Tor destinations, since Tor is another protocol very few countries would be willing to block – but Tor’s memory is not as resilient as blockchain’s, and its security features have fallen into doubt this year.
Nonetheless there is genuine potential to use Bitcoin as a mule, effectively, for an entirely new layer of the internet, with compressed hashes spreading outward to external storage systems and other information protocols. Where the externally-linked protocols are not banned such a new and resilient ecostructure is quite feasible.
If an application stores data within the Bitcoin blockchain itself, as is the case with Okupski’s proof-of-concept messaging system, the ‘right to be forgotten’ which has so plagued Google in 2014 will not be an issue or an option, because the integrity of the Bitcoin blockchain ledger record is the foundation – and point – of the system.
That’s good for those messaging dissidents under oppressed regimes (depending on the varying possibility of maintaining a secure and impregnable identity scheme) – but it’s just as useful for terrorists, criminals, child-pornographers, jilted exes dealing in revenge content, online bullies, drug-dealers tired of playing whack-a-mole with iterations of Silk Road…and any other number of undesirable end-uses to which such ‘permanent memory’ may prove unfortunate. There is simply no authority to appeal to once transactions have sealed data into the blockchain; and if blockchain-based cryptocurrency becomes an essential part of a country’s financial infrastructure, the host countries will have to live with whatever ‘graffiti’ is not actually external to the blockchain. Forever.