Blockchain entrepreneur takes aim at word theft and rumor-mongering in cyberspace

Tricks such as hiring shills to inflate the number of clicks or page views proliferated. As a result, only tiny bits of advertising money are left for serious journalism.

“Copy-laundering,” or xigao, refers to the practice of making substantial changes to the wording and structure of original written works. But with blockchain, it becomes well-nigh impossible to copy online without leaving a trace as the technology can document original authorship and track down plagiarists.

Copyright infringement is the horror of the print media and digital journalism. All the more so in the age of social media, where plagiarism is constantly mutating.

An emerging form of word theft is called xigao, or literally “copy-laundering.” The term refers to the practice of making substantial changes to the wording and structure of original written works, so that it becomes much harder to identify the “smoking gun.”

Instead of lifting entire paragraphs verbatim from original texts, many plagiarists think xigao hides their footprint and shields them from incriminating allegations.

One company in Shanghai is pledging to stamp out this scourge with the help of the latest darling of the tech sector: blockchain technology. Oliver Wu, chief executive of YuanBen Blockchain, told Shanghai Daily how blockchain can make it well-nigh impossible to copy online without leaving a trace. The ex-engineer who worked at Lenovo and Baidu said the goal of his company, founded in 2016, is to give each piece of online writing a “unique DNA.”

That is harder than it sounds. Amid a sea of articles that are “tweeted” every day on WeChat, which boasts a billion active users, one cannot but wonder how an article can be traced to its original writer.

‘Closed loop’

To illustrate his point, Wu, 37, took out his smartphone and pointed at a WeChat post on investment. He scrolled down to the bottom of the page, pressed “read the original text” and was redirected to another page tagged with the yellow, shield-shaped insignia of YuanBen, revealing details about the copyright-holder, a private equity investor. “This is to certify that the investor owns the rights to his work, even if his byline might get lost over the course of multiple ‘retweets,’” Wu said with a grin.

This is the very first, and indispensable, part of what he called a “closed loop,” encompassing certification, protection, authorization and commercialization of quality content. Many people may feel at liberty to use online materials without seeking consent from authors. But for people more mindful of copyright laws, the services provided by Wu’s company could clearly direct them where to seek permission to reproduce or reprint works for commercial purposes.

That means writers could profit more from creating and uploading quality works online. “For instance, an investor could charge 1,000 yuan (US$159) for his piece, and sue those caught running it without authorization,” said Wu.

This system of copyright protection is built around a key feature of blockchain technology, which leaves no room for tampering and falsification. Powered by a technology known as “distributed ledger,” every transaction is recorded in “blocks” and can be traced all the way back to its origins. Theoretically, when every stakeholder involved in a public blockchain is given a copy of the same ledger, it becomes difficult to cheat.

Wu explained that this technology will make it much easier to document authorship and call the bluff of those who claim theirs is an original.

Lack of trust

And a wide array of applications has been found for this property of blockchain in areas where business deals tend to be grounded by a lack of trust, such as finance, logistics, e-commerce and intellectual property protection.

YuanBen is a pioneer in the field of intellectual property protection using blockchain. Cooperation with a number of reputable media outlets in Beijing and Guangdong Province is underway, with the company providing technical support to help track down plagiarists and identify proof for litigation.

Apart from helping media cash in on valued content, this bespectacled entrepreneur of a medium build is also taking it upon himself the quixotic mission of combatting misinformation and falsehoods that have turned the domestic cyberspace into a gargantuan junkyard. As a former employee of Baidu specializing on browser design, Wu came to realize how distorted values and a fixation with generating traffic often lead to a pile of crass and risqué content being fed to readers. He is a passionate critic of junk permeating social media like WeChat, especially the stuff created by the notorious clan of biaoti dang — people who write misleading headlines to use as “clickbait.”

Wu remembers how he was constantly receiving messages from his unsuspecting parents in northeast China, who expressed their love by sharing posts on health-related issues. The posts often bore sensational headlines which are “purely fallacies not grounded in any science,” said Wu.

Describing himself as a “meddlesome” vigilante, he occasionally would ask senders to delete these messages, lest they mislead and corrupt young minds. To him, all this points to flaws inherent in the value distribution system of the Internet, which favors “traffic” and “clicks” above anything else.

A by-product of the rise of Internet advertising is CPM, or “cost per mille” It refers to the price an advertiser pays for a thousand views or clicks of an advertisement and has often become the sole yardstick for judging online. Tricks such as hiring shills to inflate the number of clicks or page views proliferated. As a result, only tiny bits of advertising money are left for serious journalism.

Stringent editorial procedures traditionally applied by established media are hardly binding for so-called “self-media.” Wu said he believes this results in the game being rigged in favor of those more adept at generating traffic, by hook or by crook.

Past crusades against online falsehoods often have met with failure, but this time things might be a little different. Wu said he believes blockchain is a more effective rumor-buster and could be used to sweep away online dirt and restore credibility to news.

In 2016, news that folk singer Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for literature took the world by surprise. But an even bigger surprise came when an apocryphal statement by Dylan made the rounds in China’s social media, indicating that the singer refused to accept the prize.

Later it turned out that the statement was originally made by Jean-Paul Sartre when the French leftist writer (1905-80) rejected the Nobel prize in 1964. In a deliberate attempt to cause confusion, someone attributed the claims to Dylan. “Until now, there is still some confusion as to whether Dylan initially declined the Nobel laurels or not,” said Wu.

Information overload

He added that had blockchain been used to scrutinize the statement, the fuss would have ended soon after it began. Today, information overload means that each of us is practically living in a virtual landfill, while contributing our own share of littering to swell its size. In the absence of retribution for perpetuating lies, the wide application of blockchain might one day make us think twice before irresponsibly sharing items of dubious credibility.

Wu is not alone in employing blockchain in copyright protection, but he shrugged off the idea that he is competing with domestic rivals like Xichain and Taiyiyun. His confidence, he said, hinges upon the combined strengths of YuanBen: knowledge of how the media work, technical prowess and an in-depth study of laws and regulations related to intellectual property. “These gave us a head start in the business,” said Wu.

He didn’t seem too bothered by a certain public negativity about blockchain, often associated with volatile cryptocurrencies, as “blockchain is about a lot more than just cryptocurrencies.”

He credited the rapid development of his company over the past two years with what he said is an “awakening” of popular awareness about intellectual property rights in China. An added boost has come from authorities endorsing new technologies, including blockchain, that aid the quest to protect copyrights.

Wu hailed a recent ruling by a court in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province, that settled a dispute using blockchain — the first of its kind in China. He said he expects more courts to follow suit.

In spite of tumbling prices of bitcoin, ether and other digital currencies, Wu is encouraging fellow believers in blockchain to see the bright side.

“It’s time for us to hunker down and really do things, rather than speculate on the cryptocurrency fad,” he noted.

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