Andreessen Horowitz-backed startup Arweave says its decentralized ‘permaweb’ is fighting coronavirus misinformation in China

  • Berlin-based Arweave is a startup which is building a decentralized internet archive that it calls its ‘permaweb.’
  • This permaweb contains information from across the globe that Arweave says cannot be changed, bypassing censorship or disinformation. 
  • Arweave is backed by Andreessen Horowitz and says it is helping people in China accurately report on the coronavirus crisis.
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Berlin-based startup Arweave hopes to change an internet dominated by misinformation and rumor.

The startup, founded in 2017, operates on two layers to ensure that internet content is not lost or deleted.

Despite the massive growth of data online, the internet does not really have any kind of permanent archive. Some 30% of internet links are broken in under two years and 98% of links are broken within 20 years, according to Arweave. 

In an attempt to fix the internet’s memory issue, the company has built a “permaweb” with the goal of permanent data storage. Arweave has built a blockchain to do this. The blockchain is effectively a digital record or distributed ledger of activity, most regularly associated with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. There is no one blockchain, rather copies of the blockchain are held on hard drives globally, all of which are updated when new details are added. The thinking is to make the system robust against hackers or censors.

Developers can build applications on top of Arweave’s software. 

For example, apps built on top of Arweave are currently capturing information within China before it is censored by the government, with the startup supporting some 200 applications including WeiBlocked, a company which trawls Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, for information which might later be censored.

Arweave provides tools for developers, but regular users can also pay to access storage. Users effectively pay for the unused space on other people’s hard drives, who are paid to keep files secure.  

“We are attempting to address the fragility of the information space,” Arweave’s cofounder and CEO Sam Williams told Business Insider in an interview. The company came through Techstars’ Berlin incubator although Williams most recently was studying for a PhD in computer science at the University of Kent in the UK. 

“We help people in China speak about the reality on the ground, i.e. coronavirus without their voice being censored by the government,” Williams added.

He told Business Insider that the idea for Arweave came from reading George Orwell’s 1984 and studying authoritarian regimes such as those in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. 

Recently, the Chinese government appeared to remove or hide information about Dr Li Wenliang who was an early whistleblower on the coronavirus in Wuhan. He died from the disease but information that he promoted is still visible to users on Arweave’s permaweb away from the reach of Chinese censorship. Users can potentially see said information on FeedWeave, a decentralized social media site which operates on top of the platform. 

Funding the future

The startup has received backing from some major names in venture capital, including Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures but in an unconventional manner. Unlike regular fundraising where founders exchange equity in their business in return for capital, Arweave has raised $22 million from investors by selling tokens in its blockchain. The idea is that the value of those tokens will increase in the future with only 66 million in existence and with increasing demand for Arweave’s services.

The company also dispenses grants to fund startups and projects which will grow permaweb usage, alongside the recently announced Arweave Boost which provides $50,000 worth of storage to startups trying to build on the permaweb. 

“We back companies which are helping to ensure the future of the permaweb,” Williams added. “Our work is very important for stopping fake news and disinformation so companies that help us build on that are starting to come through the pipeline.”

Arweave users pay for storage on the permaweb for time spans as long as a century and users in more than 50 countries support the platform through storage nodes worldwide. 

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