As Russian forces invade Ukraine, raising real fears about its long-term future, a band of digital archivists is furiously working to preserve the news and events of the crisis.
A Berlin-based blockchain startup called Arweave is attempting to turn the phrase “history is written by the victors” on its head.
As the Russian military continues its assault on Ukraine and panicked citizens leave in droves before it is too late, there is a fear that key artifacts of Ukrainian history and culture could be whitewashed in the aftermath of the conflict. This includes important news articles, documents, videos, social media posts, and all sorts of digital forms of media. Arweave is calling its blockchain platform the ‘permaweb’ because it is hoping to provide an indelible receptacle to preserve such content. Think of it as a Noah’s Ark for documents, a perfect preservation for future historians and researchers.
In the last few weeks alone the platform, which claims to have found a way to cheaply and permanently store virtually unlimited amounts of data, has absorbed more than 6.5 million pieces of information surrounding the Ukraine conflict uploaded onto its software by an eager network of global participants. A week ago the platform only held 100,000 different entries. In total, the platform is now safeguarding over 50 terabytes of data.
Above Arweave’s record of Ukraine-related documents uploaded
Amount of data stored on the Arweave platform
Of course, there are fears that with an open platform, there is a risk that Arweave itself could be overrun by illicit digital material or propaganda. It would not be hard for someone to spam the platform in an effort to make the repository unusable. Right now there is little in the way of defense or means of recourse to prevent this type of attack. But for the time being, especially in crisis scenarios such as the invasion of Ukraine, Arweave argues that it is more important to get everyone onto the liferaft, propagandists and all, and sort things out later.
Here is how the new blockchain platform works. Arweave participants host nodes all over the world. In exchange, they get compensated in the network’s native token, AR, which priced at $28 has a market capitalization of $1 billion. The network currently boasts about 1,000 nodes, with the largest concentrations being in the U.S., Germany, and interestingly China.
People can upload documents by downloading a browser extension, similar to how you could install ad-blocking software, and setting up a digital wallet. The Arweave team provides each user with some free tokens, which can then be used to compensate the miners for uploading your documents. Once these steps are completed, you can simply click a button on the bottom of the page to archive it, and once completed a window will popup with all of the relevant transaction details. A step by step guide can be found here.
What an archive confirmation looks like
Arweave’s creator, Sam Williams says that he created the platform, which is backed by blue chip venture capital investors such as Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures, because of flaws that he saw in current centralized data storage systems. “You can’t do permanent storage as a company, because you can never trust the company not to change the business model, not to make an error and so on…It’s fundamentally censorship resistant, and now anyone can contribute to this archive for a cent per megabyte and make sure that the thing that they think is important is recorded for history.”
To further encourage participants to upload documents related to the Ukraine crisis, Arweave announced a $100,000 grant program to help participants pay the fees necessary to add information to the permaweb. It is the same concept as paying transaction fees to bitcoin or ethereum miners to send payments or engage with a decentralized application.
Only about $5,000 of that money has been shared so far, but Williams says this shortcoming is more a function of the rapidly shifting environment than lack of interest. One such participant is Pompano Beach, Florida’s Andres Pirela, a software engineer who has uploaded pdf versions of 10,500 news articles himself across multiple languages including Ukrainian, Russian, English, Chinese, and Arabic by plugging into an API firehose he created to rapidly download the documents.
Example of Ukraine-related pdf archived on Arweave
Pirela also went a step further, by actually creating step by step instructions for interested parties interested in archiving information surrounding the conflict. Though this process requires more technical knowledge than the simple instructions mentioned above, it is far more scalable.
It is worth noting that the Ukrainian crisis is not the first time that Arweave has served as an escape valve of sorts for information under threat. However, the use case of preventing authoritarian regimes from whitewashing history does have Russo-Ukrainian origins.
Williams recounts an episode in November 2018 when a Russian naval vessel boarded a Ukrainian boat, taking 24 sailors captive. “Sputnik (an English-language pro-Russian outlet) wrote an article, which was the first English speaking language article by the Russian government that was initially pro Ukrainian. It was only online for 14 minutes, but someone from our community snapped it up and put it inside the blockchain. And then they (Sputnik) deleted it. Of course, Sputnik followed up with a piece that was much more pro Russian, but we managed to capture, essentially, Russia trying to memory hole, this idea.”
Original and whitewashed versions of the conflict between Ukrainian and Russian vessels in 2018.
Arweave also was called into action during the pro-democacy protests in Hong Kong in April 2019. Williams says that the company uploaded 650,000 sources, including the entire 12,000 article archive of the now-defunct independent newspaper Apple Daily, which had a circulation of 86,000.
But is it not just authoritarian governments that Arweave is watching. In fact, the archive has also caught examples of other countries trying to delete unflattering information. For instance, the Canadian Ministry of Defense published an article on its news feed about a sexual assault allocation that ended up being deleted once chargers were dropped against the accused soldier.
Like most projects that could prove to be a needle in the side of governments, Williams is aware that as the public face of the project he could become a target. He got a taste of what that may look like last fall. After somebody unaffiliated with the Arweave team gave a presentation in China about the platform in September 2020, authorities seized one node’s hardware in the country. Williams presumes it was because the miner was safeguarding data about Hong Kong. But things did not start there. He then shared with Forbes emails that he and his CTO received from Google alerting him to intrusion attempts by state actors to hack his accounts.
Sam Williams getting a warning from Google about the security of his account
For the time being Williams and his team are focused on preserving as much information as possible, which could become more challenging as the conflict continues.