Payu Harris is the kind of person who’s not afraid to stare down a bulldozer. For months, he’s been living in a camp blocking the planned route of the Dakota Access pipeline. Payu traces his lineage to the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and he is committed to preventing oil companies from trampling the Native American burial grounds that lie on the pipeline route. He’s a leader in the protest camp with a formal title that means “warrior” and — he loves shattering stereotypes —the founder of a blockchain-based cryptocurrency.
Payu came to DC last week to lobby against the pipeline. While he was staying at my home — the Love & Solidarity Collective — he showed me videos of police and private security forces trying to force protestors off the pipeline route.
During at least one encounter, Payu says that police selectively arrested journalists and videographers — a favorite tactic for law enforcement trying to shield themselves from accountability. Anticipating more attempts at censorship, Payu began embedding photos from the protest in the blockchain that runs his cryptocurrency. Now woven forever into the blockchain, they are publicly visible and cryptographically protected against tampering by governments, security contractors, or anyone really. (You can see more of the photos by querying for “Standing Rock” on bitfossil.com, a search engine that indexes blockchains.)
This is not the application that people first think of when they hear the word “blockchain.” But maybe it should be.
If you’re not familiar with blockchains, you can think of them as a system for making information ubiquitous and permanent by spreading it out across many, many computers that all work together to keep it safe and available. This stands in stark contrast to the current standard method for storing information on the Internet, in which privately owned servers maintain a master copy of information and send it to other computers upon request. Trying to censor a traditional server is comparatively easy because the information comes from a single point. Trying to censor a blockchain is like trying to kill a thousand (or million) headed hydra — it’s not actually impossible but it’s generally prohibitively difficult. Even if an attacker removes or compromises many of the computers that are participating in the blockchain, the rest will keep the information intact and available.
The human race is still figuring out what exactly to do with blockchains. So far, most of the hype around them has centered on financial applications (i.e. Bitcoin or private blockchains run by banks). There’s a market incentive for the financial industry to incorporate Blockchains, because it spends heaps of money trying to secure digital transactions using existing technologies that are inherently less secure. But beyond finance, political and activist uses of blockchains already exist and deserve more attention. Like cryptography in the 80s or the non-military Internet in the 90s, the blockchain is a new technology with unexplored potential to radically level inequalities in access to information and freedom of speech.
Payu says that this is the first time he knows of someone embedding protest photos in a blockchain. After spending some time on Google, I can’t find any others. I don’t think this will be true for long; it’s easy to see how Payu’s technique would be even more impactful in a country without checks against government censorship.
I hope that activists facing censorship-happy governments are quick to get their hands on blockchain-undergirded publishing platforms and communication apps. At this point, there isn’t a simple way for non-techies to add photos to a blockchain, though services like CryptoGraffiti that allow you to do it if you know how to buy Bitcoin. Someone has already used the Bitcoin blockchain to save leaked files exposed by WikiLeaks.
If you’re looking to add a protest photo indelibly, but don’t have the skills to embed it in a Blockchain, you can use ipfs.pics. The Interplanetary File System (IPFS) is not a blockchain, but it is similar in that it is a distributed file system that spreads data through countless computers around the world, so that it is very hard to remove.
Payu’s use of a blockchain to store protest photos is refreshing because of its novel blending of technology with radical activism. But it’s not the only project trying to use blockchains directly for social justice. Noncomprehensively, there are proposals and projects to use blockchains for: monitoring supply chains to stop labor and environmental abuses; stopping corrupt middlemen from siphoning off aid money for the poor; and creating untamperable election systems.
For his part, Payu plans to use the Mazacoin blockchain to help Native Americans build sovereignty and independence from the federal government. He hopes that having their own currency will empower the reservations to make economic decisions that work for them, and he also has other blockchain-based infrastructure planned, including an already-working ID system. It seems he’s already gotten some traction among Native Americans, but he says he has a long way to go in convincing people to use Mazacoin.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Payu how he would feel if Mazacoin was so successful among Native Americans that other people started using it and it lost its role as an indigenous-only currency. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it” he said. “It would demonstrate that it’s a serious project.”