If you’re in finance or business, chances are you’ll have already heard about blockchain. Over the past year or so, the meteoric rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have catapulted the technology into the public consciousness. But what is blockchain technology, and how is it relevant to the world of publishing?
In this resource guide we take a look at how blockchain is already impacting publishing and what we can expect in the near horizon. It will also act as a ‘live’ feed (with all the latest blockchain stories of interest to publishers) and will be updated on an ongoing basis – Click here for the latest Blockchain publishing news feed
What is blockchain?
Although you’ve probably heard of blockchain, chances are you might not fully understand how it works. Don’t worry – most people don’t, and that’s because most of the explanations are full of jargon and focused around high-level cryptography, networking, and authentication concepts.
At its most basic level, blockchain technology is what’s called a ‘distributed ledger’. It’s a publicly accessible record of transactions, the security of which stems from the fact that it’s verified by mass consensus. Bitcoin is the easiest example to demonstrate how the technology works in practice.
When a transaction is made with bitcoin, the authenticity of that transaction is confirmed by other computers on the bitcoin network (using all kinds of methods that are too complex to go into here). Once a certain number of those transactions are made, they are grouped together into a block of information, validated and added to all of the other existing blocks of records, thus forming a blockchain.
These blocks cannot be tampered with – when one computer tries to propose a new block, the rest of the network has to confirm that all of the previous records match the records that they have. If there’s any discrepancy at all, the new block is rejected and the blockchain remains unchanged.
Here’s what that all boils down to: blockchains are a secure, tamper-proof record of transactions which require no human input.
What publishers need to know
So unless they’re planning to launch their own cryptocurrency, why should publishers care about blockchain? Well, while bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are by far the most well-known application for blockchain technology, they’re by no means the only use. Blockchains serve as a record of transactions, but that doesn’t have to be limited to monetary ones. Smart contracts, for example, are generating significant interest from the publishing sector. Smart contracts use blockchain technology to create an indelible legal document, the authenticity of which is independently verified by the network as a whole. This means that the information within the contract is equally controlled by both parties, with a level of transparency that benefits all involved.
More importantly, these contracts can function as part of a wider system – for example, smart contracts can be configured so that when a contributor submits a piece of commissioned content, the commissioning editor marks it as received, and payment is automatically dispatched. This can be extended to any element of the publishing supply chain; whether that’s photographers, writers, art editors or equipment vendors. It makes bookkeeping and accounting much easier too, as it automatically creates a full and complete history of all contract payments.
The editorial angle
It’s not just the business side of publishing that can benefit from blockchain technology. It could prove to be an excellent tool for editorial staff, too. While blockchain’s unchangeable, fraud-proof records are a logical choice for financial transactions, they also allow the creation of a definitive document history. This allows editors to track changes made to a piece, as well as indicating who made them and when.
Blockchain can protect publishers from fraud
Another potential benefit for publishers is the prevention of ad fraud. Sometimes known as click fraud, this is a pervasive problem in online publishing. Fraudsters use bots and other digital trickery to artificially inflate the amount of impressions a particular ad has received, generating false charges for advertisers and skewing the statistics.
There are a number of companies attempting to solve this issue using blockchain. Some are focussing on verifying the authenticity of individual impressions to create an uncorrupted record, while others want to strengthen connections between publishers, advertisers, ad tech providers, and consumers to get a clearer picture of which ad impressions are genuine. IBM, for example, has already launched a pilot programme with Salon which uses blockchain to undo the damage of click fraud by building a shared ledger that creates indisputable transparency on behalf of both the brand and the publisher. Meanwhile, travel media brand Ink have teamed up with AdEx to reduce the impact of click fraud on their business. The partnership has also introduced the first ever blockchain based advertising auction, selling off ad space on one million boarding passes.
Data protection compliance
Publishers could also use blockchain to ensure regulatory compliance – especially with regards to GDPR. One of the requirements of the new data protection laws is that you have to be able to track down and destroy an individual’s data upon request, which could be difficult if you aren’t entirely sure where it’s gone and who’s had access to it. Using a blockchain framework to track the use of personal data records ensures that publishers know exactly where an individual’s data is being stored, what it has been used for, and who has had access to it. This allows them to greatly speed up the processes they will need to have in place to meet compliance standards.
The final word
Blockchain has a myriad of potential uses; in many ways, the possibilities are endless. However, as with a lot of new technological developments, many of these cases are more theory than product at this point. While there are companies working on solutions and products designed to address the challenges presented, for the most part they are still in the very early stages and largely untested.
Still, the technology is rapidly advancing, and early adopters are beginning to launch pilot programmes to try and sound out whether these offerings will work in practice. While blockchain technologies may not be mature enough to tempt more risk-averse publishers just yet, it’s an intriguing and vibrant space, and one which forward-looking publishers would be wise to keep a close eye on.
At a glance: Scientific publishing is a robust business sector. In 2015, the global STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) publishing market alone was estimated to be worth over $25 billion USD, and that represents just a portion of the market. Through the utilization of smart contracts, decentralized storage solutions, big data analytics, and cloud computing, blockchain technology can be harnessed to greatly accelerate the peer review process and usher in a new era of transparency and efficiency for the sector.
At a glance: Civil represents one of the most ambitious efforts to date to apply the tenets of cryptoeconomics — the practice of powering online marketplaces with digital currency logged on encrypted ledgers — to the financial challenges facing the news industry. Mr. Iles is aiming to create a network of stakeholders united under the banner of supporting and sustaining quality journalism.
At a glance: Taiwanese-based smartphone manufacturer HTC is building the first-ever blockchain smartphone, named HTC Exodus. The company wants to expand the blockchain ecosystem with the new smartphone, which will be dedicated to decentralised applications and security. HTC’s chief crypto officer, Phil Chen, said the phone was an opportunity to empower people to start owning their digital identities.
At a glance: Superb article about how blockchain can, and is, being used to disrupt existing business models. Whilst not completely publisher-relevant, the piece focuses on HelloTickets and how it achieved a major milestone by rolling out its blockchain ticketing solution to a festival in the UK attended by 9,000 people. It worked perfectly.
At a glance: Founded by a group of scientists with experience in working at some of the world’s largest and most prestigious research institutions, including CERN and NASA, Orvium is planning to use blockchain technology to effectively put all academic and scientific publishing in the public domain, making it instantly available to the community to read and assess.
At a glance: Blockchain technology is spreading beyond cryptocurrency, in sectors closer to consumers, making use of its ability to ensure the authenticity of products or information.
At a glance: A group of former Denver Post journalists and editors plan to launch The Colorado Sun, which will use blockchain technology to store data and address the issues of an ad-driven media economy.
At a glance: The creators of AdBlock Plus will launch a new browser extension that uses blockchain to classify the integrity of information online.
At a glance: Music streaming service SoundCloud are plotting a collaboration with MaestroProject to use blockchain to ensure greater financial security and stronger networks for artists.
At a glance: A group of Oxford professors are seeking full degree granting powers for a proposed blockchain-based university, suggesting the technology could democratise higher education.
At a glance: The Blockchain for Peer Review project will seek to group peer review activities into a blockchain, resolving issues of research reproduction and recognition.