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Protecting critical content: How the decentralized web is opening up new paths for archivists

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Smartphones have revolutionized our lives – we carry a powerful tool in our pockets that allows us to capture and share content immediately. Yet, one question that has emerged is how do we safely archive and protect information that could save lives and lead to justice for the worst human rights abusers on the planet?

That’s the challenge my organization – OpenArchive – faces every day. While secure, mobile archiving tools are still nascent, we work to close the gap between privacy and usability for people who are safeguarding content captured on their mobiles phones. As a nonprofit dedicated to empowering activists and citizens to collect, verify, and securely preserve mobile media, we are constantly wrestling with how to help manage concerns about security and privacy, chain of custody, and long-term accessibility to their content.

Technology: A Double-edged Sword

For generations, content creators and archivists have wrestled with the challenge of protecting critical content. On one hand, the ubiquity of mobile phones and widespread access to the Internet have created amazing pathways for eyewitnesses, such as activists, citizen reporters, and journalists, to document the world around them and share it globally in real-time, whether they be in Raqqa or Minneapolis. On the other hand, these technologies come with significant threats to internet freedom, including increased surveillance, biased content monitoring, and censorship.

Around the world, bad actors have eroded privacy and archiving efforts through internet blackouts, privacy breaches, and surveillance. Their repressive actions often target, censor, and manipulate critical information, and these threats aren’t unique to human rights work. These aren’t new challenges, they are just evolutions of the same problem: over time, technologies evolve, as do the obstacles.

But what if we had more power to combat these obstacles? What if we could safeguard our most vital information in a way that protects privacy, promotes security, and allows easy verification of authenticity and accessibility? I believe the next generation of the web – an internet that is decentralized and built on peer-to-peer networks –  could be a key to helping documentarians, archivists, and anyone else eager to protect content unlock a more privacy-focused and equitable media ecosystem.

The Decentralized Web and Why It Matters

What is decentralized web technology? At a basic level, a decentralized web is an attempt to take back control of the internet from major multinational companies and surveillance regimes so that gatekeepers or powerful individual entities do not control the flow of information. A decentralized web is an internet that is in the hands of everyone – it has the potential to be truly democratic.

Moving toward a more decentralized system will further empower at-risk communities to have more agency over their vital records. Decentralized storage, such as the Filecoin protocol, allows witnesses to verify content, automatically adding metadata to authenticate the media. In addition, decentralization enables witnesses to create multiple copies of their original media and store it in multiple places, providing further security against data loss and increasing long-term access to media. And most importantly, a decentralized system provides control. In a world where a majority of data is owned by companies and platforms, decentralized alternatives keep control in the hands of the people who capture and own the media.

For example, anyone who has witnessed human rights violations and is worried about keeping a video solely on their phone – either because it could be discovered in their possession, or their phone could be destroyed – can preserve it securely (private server) or publicly (Internet Archive).

OpenArchive currently supports those collecting evidentiary media with our Save (Share, Archive, Verify, Encrypt) app, which we are expanding to include decentralized backends. This will enable people on the ground capturing images and footage of crucial world events to leverage decentralized storage options, like Filecoin or IPFS, from their phones. In order to do this, we are partnering with the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web to ensure that history’s first responders have access to the secure and resilient decentralized storage they need. Decentralized backends will provide redundancy (multiple copies on many servers) to improve long-term access, enhance verification, and protect media from manipulation or other malfeasance.

The core challenges facing archivists today are not necessarily new; verification, preservation, and protecting vital information has always been a struggle. But technology has caused these challenges to evolve in ways that are hugely consequential for humankind and how we respond to them will help define our future. As we work to solve problems around how we protect our shared experiences, our knowledge, and humanity’s most important information, decentralized technologies will be a critical part of the solution.

Natalie Cadranel
Founder and Director, OpenArchive

OpenArchive is dedicated to protecting media freedom: preserving, amplifying, and securely routing mobile media to community-maintained collections in accessible public and private archives, outside the corporate walled gardens currently dominating the online media ecosystem.

Created by and for citizen reporters and human rights defenders in 2015, our distributed media ecosystem promotes freedom of expression by protecting, authenticating, and offering access to and long-term preservation of at-risk community media.

Filecoin Foundation: Filecoin is a decentralized storage system designed to store humanity’s most important information. The creators of Filecoin envisioned an independent foundation that would serve as the long-term governance body for the Filecoin ecosystem. Its original mandate was to “grow an open ecosystem for decentralized storage” and “give developers an open and sustainable platform to build, enhance and monetize those services.” The Filecoin Foundation (FF) is an independent organization that facilitates governance of the Filecoin network, funds critical development projects, supports the growth of the Filecoin ecosystem, and advocates for Filecoin and the decentralized web. FF does this by coordinating and supporting the creation and improvement of open-source software and open protocols for decentralized data storage and retrieval networks.