As the #MeToo movement collides with Ethereum in China.
26 Apr, 2018FORTUNE.COM
As the Great Firewall of China scrubs away mentions of a widely circulated #MeToo student activist letter from the internet, some Ethereum users have found a way to skirt the ban.
By storing it somewhere the government can’t touch: The blockchain of Ethereum, the second largest cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. Blockchain, the underlying technology behind cryptocurrencies, is effectively a record of information, with several users holding onto said ledger -- making it impossible to change the record without the agreement of the network.
The letter, authored by a Peking University student Yue Xin, details her attempts to gather information about a 1998 rape case at the institution. A then-student, Gao Yan, told friends and family that she had been raped by then-professor Shen Yang. Gao then killed herself.
Yue’s information requests to the university were eventually denied -- though that wasn’t the end of it. According to Yue’s letter, an instructor barged into her dormitory at 1 a.m. one night, forcing her awake, and demanded any data on her phone and computer regarding the rape case be destroyed.
That letter was stored on a memo accompanying an Ethereum transaction. Earlier this week, an unknown user sent themselves zero dollars worth of Ether for a transaction price of about 47 cents.
The Peking University petition letter has now been stamped on ethereum so it can never be scraped from the web. Meanwhile posts on the same topic are disappearing from WeChat fast. Quite the symbolic move pic.twitter.com/zVF3utlUnx
— Lulu Yilun Chen (@luluyilun) April 24, 2018
That immutability and information-storing feature of certain blockchains however is both a pro and a con. While cryptocurrency proponents have pointed to the immutability of the public ledger as a way to deter censorship and false documentation, its skeptics say that it is also a potential hurdle to adoption.
German researchers in March for instance noted that governments may consider some information contained in the blockchains of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum threatening -- and decide to dub the possession of such blockchains illegal.
Notably, since the blockchain of Bitcoin also allows users to attach memos, it also allows users to include information such as links to child porn. The same blockchain also included online news articles detailing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong -- news that Beijing has tried in the past to suppress.
It’s a move that could potentially give the Chinese government back the control it does not have over such open blockchains: a state-sponsored cryptocurrency. The People’s Bank of China has reportedly been researching such an idea.
That comes after China cracked down on Bitcoin exchanges and initial coin offerings in 2017, saying the asset class is too risky. But notably, while the country has taken a knife to cryptocurrencies as a financial instrument, it has stressed the importance of blockchain technology. In 2016, the country’s central bank outlined several technologies it would prioritize over the next five years. Among buzzwords, including AI and autonomous driving, was the term blockchain.