One of the biggest long-term trust problems of the web is reliably figuring out who published something first. Who was first has deep implications for ownership, and for areas like citation and (Google) news rankings. Today we have submitted an issue to the Schema.org GitHub which proposes a solution to fix this using timestamps on the blockchain. I view this as a first step in fixing some of the inherent trust issues on the web.
Full disclosure: this is a problem I care about deeply, which is why Marieke and I invested in WordProof, a company that set out to fix this problem. We’re not just investing money, I’m actively advising the company and we’re actively collaborating on proposals like this one.
What is this timestamp proposal?
Let me take the content from the issue:
The point is to “timestamp” new or modified content as you publish it. You then add the information on that timestamp, including where the hash lives, into the markup of a page while optionally also offering the resource used to generate the hash. This way, the hash becomes verifiable and optionally will allow for going through previous editions of the content (also verifiable).
A hash in a blockchain transaction indisputably proves that content existed in a specific moment in time (“transparency”). Furthermore, to put a transaction in a blockchain, you use a private key to authenticate. With this private key you can prove that you were the one placing the timestamp (“accountability”).
Similarly, a timestamp could be added to a transaction in combination with a set of terms of service, to prove that a certain set of terms are valid for that transaction. There are numerous applications of this system; this proposal focuses on time-stamping content to explain the basic architecture and provide validating services with the data they need to be able to verify the records.
What is a timestamp?
If you don’t know what a timestamp is, or don’t understand any of the concepts this proposal talks about, this might move a bit fast for you.
In that case, take some time to read about timestamps. Bas van der Lans, founder of WordProof, is much better at explaining it than I am, so see this video:
For me personally, this is one of the first blockchain implementations that has me deeply excited for its possibilities. Fun fact is: turns out blockchain was invented in 1991 for the specific purpose of timestamping (source). The problems timestamping solves are very real, day to day problems of website owners, merchants etc. We can fix those problems.
I hope we’ll look back at this in a few years and see that this schema.org issue was historic. That this is where we started the evolution and started building a trusted web, on top of the open web. And we’re doing that with open source software, an open standard and an open agenda. Let’s build the trusted web, together!