Blockchain technology is being used by Internet users to prevent material such as photographs, videos, and social media postings from vanishing.
The demand for NFTs is falling over the world. Nonfungible tokens are gaining popularity in China, not as digital-art investments, but as a means of defying censorship.
As Chinese internet censors ramped up attempts to remove information from social media during the epidemic, online users have increasingly turned to NFTs as a method to save photographs, videos, music, and social media postings on a blockchain and prevent them from being deleted.
On April 22, a six-minute video clip titled “Voices of April” went popular on Chinese social media before being removed by censors. It was overlaid with what looked to be a dozen audio recordings of talks and appeals for assistance from Shanghai locals.
Many internet users minted copies of the movie into NFTs to preserve a piece of history from being lost.
On OpenSea, one of the world’s largest NFT markets, over 250 NFTS classified as siyuezhisheng, or “Voices of April,” are currently posted. Many have no price tag or are extremely cheaply priced, indicating that they aren’t meant for sale. One is for 404 ethereum, which was worth roughly $800,000 on Friday, in a clear allusion to the “not found” error message that might display when material is erased.
NFTs of images, films, audio recordings, and memes depicting the events of recent Chinese lockdowns are also available on OpenSea.
“Our struggle should be remembered,” said Dereck Yi, a Shanghai-based in-house attorney who has minted hundreds of NFTs linked to the Shanghai shutdown, including a copy of “Voices of April.” “We have no choice but to recall the hunger, rage, helplessness, and absurdity we have experienced.”
Mr. Yi said he doesn’t want to place a price on his NFTs because he wants to preserve memories. He stated, “Memories are not for sale.”
The adoption of NFTs is part of a larger trend among Chinese internet users to store sensitive information on blockchains to avoid censorship.
A blockchain relies on a distributed network of computers to agree on a record of information, making it extremely impossible to alter or delete the record. Blockchains are most usually linked with bitcoin, but enterprises throughout the world, including China, utilize them for a variety of purposes. Experts believe they haven’t seen blockchains used to combat censorship anywhere but China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
“When you talk about the technology in the West, it’s quasitheoretical,” said Sam Williams, co-founder and CEO of Arweave, a blockchain-based storage system. “However, in China, it is an instantly useful machine.”
Many others hurried to rescue the “Voices of April” video clip on Arweave on the same day that people were minting NFTs of it. According to Mr. Williams, one application for doing so witnessed a 40-fold increase in traffic.
After the death of Li Wenliang, a medical practitioner who was penalized by authorities for early warnings regarding Covid-19, a traffic increase happened towards the start of the epidemic, he added. The death of Dr. Li from the virus sparked an outpouring of sadness and fury on Chinese social media for several hours before the messages were removed.
Other efforts to preserve Dr. Li’s legacy included a digital illustration of a tombstone on the ethereum blockchain and an NFT project led by Initium Media, an independent Chinese-language online publication, which visualized the more than 730,000 comments Chinese web users left on Dr. Li’s account on the Weibo social-media platform after his death.
As a means of avoiding censorship, content providers have resorted to blockchains. According to one Chinese podcaster, her team is backing up podcasts on Arweave and working with app developers to make it simpler for other Chinese podcasters to do so. Mr. Williams added that Arweave users in China are working on a plug-in that archives Weibo posts.
Platforms for publishing content on blockchains have risen in prominence in the meanwhile.
Even though Matters.news, like OpenSea, is restricted in China, Guo Liu, the co-founder and chief technical officer of Matters.news, a blockchain-based Chinese-language publication platform, stated the website had collected 100,000 authors since its establishment in 2018. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are one way for users to get past such barriers.
Kin Ko, the inventor of LikeCoin, a blockchain-based publishing platform that launched in 2017, claims that its WordPress plug-in currently helps 8,000 websites keep their content.
Articles from Apple Daily, a pro-democracy daily in Hong Kong that was shut down by the government last year after the passing of the National Security Law, are among the nearly two million pieces of information held.
“If you have an item that you believe is important enough to be saved indefinitely as human history,” Mr. Ko added, “you can accomplish that.”
Other efforts have attempted to back up media and nonprofit archives on blockchains in Hong Kong over the past two years, according to one activist, though they have faced concerns about the political risks of leaving a record in a climate where a large number of pro-democracy activists have been detained.
“Some individuals don’t want their stuff to be saved forever because they are already in danger,” the campaigner explained.
Information preservation on blockchains is both monetarily and computationally expensive. The cost is one of the reasons why NFTs have grown popular for storing data-heavy things like photographs and movies.
Rather than directly storing an image or video file, an NFT typically only maintains information on the blockchain, with a link to a regular server where the material is stored.
However, while this has made blockchain storage more accessible, blockchain experts caution that NFTs alone will not be able to safeguard material from censorship. The NFT would still point to the file’s original location but provide a 404 error if the original file was taken down from the conventional server for whatever reason.
Fundamentally, the best method to keep material from disappearing is to make “many copies of it throughout the world,” according to Neha Narula, the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative, who analyzes cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.
Platforms like Matter.news and LikeCoin get around this by combining NFTs with a suite of other technologies like Arweave and the InterPlanetary File System, which help spread and monitor copies of material throughout the world. The NFT would then point to a number of servers rather than just one.
Mr. Liu of Matters.news believes that NFTs like “Voices of April” are more of a symbol in the end. The majority of Chinese people are ignorant of their existence. He doesn’t expect blockchain-based censorship-resistance technologies to become ubiquitous very soon, but he believes demand for them will grow. He stated, “Many of us are researching ways to push it ahead.”