Credit: By Jason Benjamin on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Digital and social media have democratised global communications enormously, but there are limits.

By way of example, Twitter has seen a 26 per cent increase in requests to remove content from governments around the world in the last six months. The lack of a hard copy of digital information can easily help it disappear.

But Ombuds, a new project recently funded by the Knight Foundation, is seeking to change that.

"If you have activists or reporters out in the world seeing things in real time – observing events, maybe they're involved in protests, maybe they're photographing or watching some event – we as society need a place to put that and store that faithfully," said Nick Skelsey, co-founder of Soapbox Systems, the company behind Ombuds.

We are capitalising on that permanence of a currency but we are repurposing it for speechAlex Kuck, Ombuds
"And if you look at the World Wide Web today, there aren't any good services that provide that."

"Services can be very resilient and say they are not going to take down their content," added Alex Kuck, who is developing the platform with Skelsey. "But the fact is they have the ability to remove the content. And in Ombuds, there is no one with that key to the server room that lets them delete the content."

If Twitter and other communications networks hand out post-it notes for people to stick to the towering monolith that is the internet, Ombuds wants to let users carve messages into the brickwork.

To do this, the platform piggybacks on Bitcoin's blockchain, essentially a public ledger to record transactions of the crypto-currency.

The process of 'mining' new Bitcoin is intensely complex and computationally expensive, and it has to be. The cryptographic proof underpinning each transaction gives the currency its solidity and trustworthiness, in the same way as physical cash.

To maintain this solidity Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto had to make sure no one could go back and change the public ledger of transactions – the blockchain. A peer-to-peer network is the solution.

The Bitcoin blockchain is now supported by thousands of individual computers around the world, individual nodes in the network that each hold a copy of the public ledger of transactions, giving it a degree of permanence in its prevalence.

"We are capitalising on that permanence of a currency but we are repurposing it for speech," said Kuck.

"At a technical level, these messages have a digital signature attached to every message," continued Skelsey, "and once the message is stored in the blockchain, you're basically locking it in time.

"It's a novel concept but to tease it out, once your message has been stored in the blockchain, it is effectively immutable because it is publicly signed."

When someone uses Ombuds they are essentially generating a Bitcoin transaction but with a message – or 'bulletin' – instead of sending bitcoin to someone.

Although the system is not yet fully public, Kuck and Skelsey have built an Ombuds platform for desktop and laptop computers, where users can both read and send bulletins, and a write-only mobile app is in the works for reporters and people in the field. Messages are limited to text for now, with a character limit of 10,000, but users can write in HTML or other markdown languages if necessary.

ombuds screenshot
Screenshot of the Ombuds prototype

And, while the platform is still in development, Twitter users can use the hashtag #recordthisplease to have Ombuds automatically saved, as Skelsey and Kuck explore partnerships with news outlets and organisations like Human Rights Watch.

There are, of course, some drawbacks. Bitcoin has a built in level of scarcity that limits the number of transactions possible in the blockchain to around 25 million, said Skelsey, an issue the Ombuds founders hope to solve by partnering with other organisations as the platform grows.

And as with any social media, users can say whatever they want, bringing all the risks of verification and newsgathering that come with the territory for journalists working online.

"If you have a platform for free speech, it's going to cut both ways," said Kuck. "It's going to enable people to speak when they should speak and let people speak when they shouldn't. The concept we're trying to get across is that this record is going to have all of it."

The Knight Foundation grant will fund Skelsey and Kuck's work on Ombuds until January 2016, but they believe this is just the start of a new, freer foundation for digital communication, with local peer-to-peer networks supporting the reporting of protests or atrocities in parts of the world where outside communication has been cut off.

"If you use social media to document these kind of things, you become beholden to companies that may not have your best interests in mind," explained Skelsey.

"So we want to build this public utility as something that anyone can contribute to. It's open to all and as free to use as we can possibly get it. And the goal here is to provide this definitive record of events that are happening in the world from people who are the primary source."

Update: This article has been updated to show Soapbox System is the company behind Ombuds.

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