On Tuesday evening, bitcoin’s price rose above $9,000 for the first time in a week regardless of reports that its blockchain contains links to child abuse imagery. Researchers from the RWTH Aachen University, Germany discovered 1,600 files that were currently stored in the bitcoin blockchain. At least eight of the files contained sexual content including two with 274 links to child abuse imagery and one that looked like an image of the same. Also among these files were 142 that contained links to dark web services.
The blockchain, which is essentially a transaction ledger distributed and stored on many different computers was designed to be immutable so as to guarantee the integrity of information. This is how all decentralized digital currencies work. As such, the information cannot be altered – at least not yet. The only alternative to would be a consensus among the network’s users to use a new version – also called a “fork” – of the blockchain instead of the original one. However, bitcoin is yet to experience this.
Some blockchains, such as the one powering bitcoin, which is probably the oldest, can contain all sorts of information fragments some of which may be illegal in certain jurisdictions. Since the information cannot be deleted, everyone that has a copy of the blockchain is essentially breaking the law.
It came as no surprise that the blockchain would undoubtedly cause trouble with laws in certain jurisdictions. The European data protection laws, for instance, say that people must be given the liberty of having their personal data amended or deleted regardless of where it is stored. Public cryptographic keys and transactions which are regularly stored on blockchains are basically personal data – and since the blockchain does not allow these to be altered, it is a breach of that particular law.
“Our analysis shows that certain content, e.g., illegal pornography, can render the mere possession of a blockchain illegal,” the German researchers explained. “Although court rulings do not yet exist, legislative texts from countries such as Germany, the UK, or the USA suggest that illegal content such as [child abuse imagery] can make the blockchain illegal to possess for all users. This especially endangers the multi-billion dollar markets powering cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.”
This is quite serious, isn’t it? But, how is bitcoin braving it? Well, while the research report highlights the importance of addressing the possibility of unintended data insertion in future blockchain designs in order to protect users accordingly, it is also important to note that the existing bitcoin blockchain design troubles do not affect casual users of the cryptocurrency.
Jeff Garzik, a bitcoin core developer explains that the unintended information on the network is not even accessible directly since it has to be decoded first. This does not also apply to users who download fragments of the blockchain such as those who are just doing Bitcoin transactions.