Adding timestamps to digital content is the core idea of WordProof. We asked questions to the founder and CEO to better understand the motivation and the goals of the company.
TruBlo: Welcome and thanks for taking the time for this interview. Before we go further – what is your background?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “I work full-time in open source software since 2006. I founded one of the first WordPress agencies in the Netherlands. That agency today is really an open-source company, a team of 25 is working there. We did a lot of stuff for publishers, we built an open-source plug-in to be GDPR-compliant, which runs on over 200,000 websites today.”
“Open-source technology is able of doing so much more than ‘just’ publishing.”
When did you start working with blockchain and the concept of timestamps?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: Since 2013 I learned about Bitcoin, in 2014 I programmed my first smart contract. In 2018 I thought, OK, open-source technology is able of doing so much more than ‘just’ publishing. We need to build a better world through technology. I believe that to save the world, we need to fix the internet. And the key is: We can really bring trust to the internet through blockchain technology. The internet was built to connect computers to computers. But computers are just technology. What if we can make computers enable better human-to-human communication, similar to how we have communication in the real world? So trust must become part of the DNA of the internet. What is trust? Trust is the sum, in our eyes, of transparency and accountability. With blockchain timestamps, you can achieve exactly that, in an open source way, for the first time in history.
So, in 2018 I decided to work full-time on what we then called WordProof. We made a proof of concept and launched the idea at the largest WordPress conference in the world. That was Wordcamp Europe 2019.
What was the reaction there? Did people understand the concept?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “It was a standing ovation. It was really cool. You can watch the keynote, it is available as a video. “
For the TruBlo website, we are using WordPress as well. It is great to have a CMS enabling to publish on the internet. But this leads to one issue for many creative people, like writers, photographers. You can upload any photo, and then it is up to the creator to pursue his rights. Why is there no way of getting paid for valuable work?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “Timestamps offer an open source way to prove that you were the first one to publish certain information. There is a video we made for our academy, showing how this can help you to protect your content.”
Ok, yes, that is helpful. Though, why is it so difficult to find a good compensation model for creative people (photographers, video makers, writers) who help to create all the content for the web?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “I understand what you say there. A good example is the GDPR plug-in we made, as an agency. We had the great wish to do something for the open-source community. I always start my conversations like this: Who loves GDPR? Everybody starts to laugh then usually. Because nobody loves GDPR. But I find GDPR wonderful. It is true: The execution was not beautiful, but the intention is great. We want to have a better internet for the citizens of Europe. So we thought: OK, nobody wants to pay to become GDPR-compliant. Let’s make it for free. Let’s make it an open-source plug-in, as opposed to a paid plug-in. We did that and by now had over two million downloads and more than 200K active installations. As an agency, we had bigger problems when we launched this. What was the problem? We were not able to find good enough developers. As there is such big competition on the market. I invested around 100,000 Euros from our company money to create a good, free GDPR plug-in. As a result, it was really for us to get great developers, as people love to work on open-source projects. And in addition, sales became easier. Because in every sales conversation the question was: How do you work with GDPR? We said: We have a plug-in running on 200,000 websites. It makes sales easier. So the direct business model of open source is totally terrible, but the indirect benefits are huge. There is a business case for open source as well.”
“… logical next step is a trusted web where all information that matters is transparent. It’s just a successor of today’s web.”
Why is there a need for a future, trusted web?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “First there was the unregulated internet. Then there was GDPR, as it was a logical next step to protect the data of the citizens. And a logical next step after that is a trusted web where all information that matters is transparent. It’s just a successor of today’s web. A trusted web-based on timestamps is a logical next step after GDPR, this is how this is what we are showing to policymakers, not only in Europe but around the world.”
How can timestamps enable more trust in content?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “There are lots of use cases regarding the protection of content. But that is not the only thing. For example, one of my favourite use cases is to use timestamps for search engines. If you have a small website and a large website, both publishing news at the same time – then often Google things that the large site was first, simply because they crawl the large sites more often. So, as a result, the large site ranks higher for the same news. In Google News, for example, 60 to 70 per cent of all information and all traffic goes to the first one who publishes something. But the small publisher does not get the chance to rank high in the Google Index. So what we work on together with people at Yoast is lots of standardisation to ensure that a search engine can verify who was the first to have published specific information. As a result, being a small publisher matters again. Because you can proof that you were first in an open source way. That is mind-blowing to me.”
How did you then get started with WordProof then?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “I made the prototype of WordProof myself. I am not a great developer, but I am a good enough developer. I am good at ideation. I thought: I need to make a prototype to show that it is possible what I want. And by the end of 2018 I found out: Ok, it is possible to make a smart contract and combine it with time-stamping. We then started to build a team. For the first half of 2019, we presented at the largest WordPress conference. This is how Wordproof as a company kickstarted. By the end of 2019, we onboarded a news title of the biggest Dutch publisher, the Pers Group. A few months back we added NRC, which is the biggest how-brow media company in the Netherlands. That’s how it got started since 2018.”
“Today, 2 out of 3 large publishers in the Netherlands are using WordProof”
So, from early on you found some customers for the solution in your country?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: Yes. I think the home market is super important. This is why we invested quite some time to educate potential clients about our solution. Today, 2 out of 3 large publishers in the Netherlands are using WordProof: NRC and DPG Media.
How did you get funding for your idea?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: We did a few things. One of them is as an agency. When I created the prototype we decided: OK, we will invest as an agency one full year of my time to develop this idea. In addition, that is good advice for everyone wanting to get started on an idea: Some blockchains offer money for proposal work. So, we got 20,000 US-Dollar from a “Work on proposal” fund in the Blockchain space.
Can you talk about that specific funding option a bit more? And what the next funding step then?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: Yes, in a lot of Blockchain communities there are ways to get *some* funding, a few thousand Euros, a few hundred – simply to get you started. It’s my firm belief that as a founder you always need to be able to program at least the prototype. Otherwise, you are totally dependent on other people and that’s not going to work. Then we found a kind of angel investor.
So it’s not just a technology thing, it is not just a media thing, it is not just a politics thing or economy thing. It’s a total sum of all. So I onboarded someone who is the total opposite of me. Frank is his name, and he helped us with an initial investment. It’s great to have him on board, he is a former politician, so we have political thinking in the company.
“175 applications 23 finalists, 40 countries. And we got the highest possible rank there: 29,5 out of 30 points.”
Then we participated in a competition by the European Commission, organised by NGI – the “blockchains for social good”-competition. This was super-cool: 175 applications 23 finalists, 40 countries. And we got the highest possible rank there: 29,5 out of 30 points. We joined the competition with the idea – OK, we were not sure, if we would win. But at least we had our plans on paper after that competition. We did not work with an outside team or an agency on that. We decided to write entirely by ourselves. With our team we invested 500 to 600 hours to write a proposal from A-Z, not leaving any stone unturned. That paid off. Firstly because this helped to structure our thoughts and get the whole company on paper. Secondly, because we won the prize. And finally, the recognition was superb. The funny thing was: There was no category for what we were doing. There were categories for ideas in the areas of logistics, banking, and so on – there were five categories, but they designed a new category for us, after our application which they called “quality content”. Content as a category was initially not planned when they designed the competition. That is the shift we see now, from Horizon 2020 to Horizon Europe. It is a lot more towards content. H2020 was about data and privacy, and now it is shifting towards trust.”
Why did the idea for WordProof not come out of Silicon Valley, but out of Europe?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: Because we as Europeans care about a better internet. This is why in 2012 we came up with the idea of GDPR, to protect the rights of our citizens, to make the internet a better place. We as Europeans deeply care about that.
How big is the team you are working with right now?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “Our team has about eight full-time people now. And, while I don’t know for sure, in a year from now the team size could easily be doubled.”
What are you offering to small and large users?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “I think the ability to proof your integrity should not be a luxury, it is a human right. There will always be a free plan and also a paid plan. Today almost 1000 sites are using WordProof. Some publishers do over 10,000 articles a month, they use our paid service to make sure that we organise all the stuff in the background for them. The verification of a timestamp is always, from A to Z, a fully open-source process. So there is no trust in WordProof needed. So, we have two organizations: WordProof, the time-stamps company and The Trusted Web Foundation, where I am a chairman. We provide a huge amount of educational information about timestamps through The Trusted Web foundation.”
“Any information can be published on the internet, but before information can go viral, it must have a certain level of accountability, which is a step in the right direction for solving misinformation and fake news.”
What was the biggest barrier to overcome for more trustable content?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: It is a hard question and an easy question at the same time. For example, The biggest benefit is for the end-user. But the one who needs to integrate the time-stamp and who needs to pay for it is the publisher. So, it is hard to align all stakeholders. That’s why we work together with search engines and social media platforms. This is very important. First, we educate search engines and social media companies that they should attribute value to timestamps. The more transparency you show, the higher you rank. The more accountability you take as a sender of information the higher they rank you. Any information can be published on the internet, but before information can go viral, it must have a certain level of accountability, which is a step in the right direction for solving misinformation and fake news. Our opinion is that there should always be freedom of speech, but not automatically and necessarily freedom of reach. There is a lot at stake there, there is a lot of education to be done for publishers, policymakers and search engines and social media. But that is why we founded The Trusted Web Foundation. There is a whole page about a variety of topics on the website of The Trusted Web.”
When do you expect media organisations to start using this technology?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “There are three or even four use cases where timestamps make sense for media companies. Structured data helps search engines. Timestamps are published as structured data. For example: To reduce search engine fraud by false dates (by simply updating the content to a more recent date). Levelling the playing field through timestamps: The example would be when a small and a big publisher publish similar content. With the timestamp, the smaller site can show when the content was published to the search engine. There are three or four major issues that could be solved by time-stamps.”
“As of early 2021 we are at a number of about three million time-stamps for articles. Over the coming months, this will go up to 10 million and later 100 million.”
How has the usage of timestamps evolved since WordProof started?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “As of early 2021 we are at a number of about three million time-stamps for articles. Over the coming months, this will go up to 10 million and later 100 million. From that moment search engines can not ignore this data as an element of ranking. We are to announce that a first engine will support this format. It is a small engine, but it is an important step. “
Do you think this is an opportunity for the EU? Do you get enough support for your idea, do you find open doors?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “We are part of a lot of round tables by the European Commission initiatives. Standardisation is key. The ISO workgroups we are part of. There are several “future of media initiatives” we are part of. Together with the publisher organisation WAN-IFRA, we are members there. I was a keynote speaker there two weeks ago. We are actively involved in media and blockchain roundtables, too.”
Why did no one think of time-stamps so far?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: “The technology of blockchain is rapidly evolving. Blockchain was invented 30 years ago, in 1991 for proofing the integrity of information. So it took quite some time. But blockchains were slow, blockchains were expensive. And the problems were not worth thinking of on the internet. So the technology was not ready, and we were not fully aware of how broken the internet is. During the last decade, we learned how broken it is, especially with COVID-19 we saw it in action. Misinformation literally costs lives. So the timing was right, both from a technology perspective and from a social perspective. Technology was not ready, society was not ready. So the time is right now. “
“WordProof is not a copyright tool”
Are you aware of similar approaches in other regions of the world?
Sebastiaan van der Lans: There are a lot of initiatives to do notarization of documents, to do copyright protection, to do search engine optimisation. WordProof is not a copyright tool, we are not just an SEO tool, we not just an integrity tool. It is a combination of all. Some building blocks. For example, there is a social network, a new one, which is called Voice.com. This new social network is really focused: Everyone there is verified. So it is only about humans. That is very interesting, but the extent of the community is limited. What we aim to do with WordProof is to make trust part of the DNA of the whole internet. And I love how for example NGI and the EU projects are all working on the trust use case. For example, search engine rankings are a result of trust. To what amount do I trust that website and put it higher in the ranks? There is not an initiative working on exactly the same. But there are a lot more organisations with an aligned mission and I like to see all of those.”