For numerous years, newspapers throughout Idaho have received millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. For as long as Idaho has been a state, newspapers have benefited from laws that require government agencies to post public notices in newsprint. In 2017, government entities paid more than $3 million for such notices, exceeding what the Legislature appropriated from the General Fund for state-run media outlets.
Fortunately, a new technology offers many distinct advantages for posting these notices online while maintaining the immutability, verifiability, and widespread access that are already key features of public accountability. In addition, this is an opportunity to save millions of taxpayer dollars each year.
Blockchain is this new technology. Blockchain, at its simplest, is a means of storing cryptographically-secured information across multiple computers. This allows a dispersed network of individuals or organizations to store, upload, and verify the information held on a distributed ledger. Take, for example, a copy of the U.S. Constitution I recently posted on an established blockchain network. It cost me less than one dollar, but some 20,000 computers immediately stored and secured their own copy, ensuring the text is saved indefinitely.
In the same manner, legal notices are supposed to be distributed widely and stored permanently so that the public can know what their public officials are doing and have done in the past. For these reasons, government entities are obligated to post such notices in a newspaper when they: offer property for auction, hold a public hearing, set an annual budget, or take many other actions.
Just as blockchain technology allowed me to immediately post a permanent copy of the U.S. Constitution across numerous computers, it could be used to publish and store public notices. And, this method would be an improvement over current print notices in several ways.
First, by storing public notices on a distributed ledger in blockchain format, each county, city, or state agency would keep a permanent record of the information uploaded by other agencies. If private organizations or individuals wished, they, too, could keep a record of the notices. If a notice were changed in one place without alerting the others, that discrepancy would be immediately recognized by every other entity, showing it had been changed.
Additionally, because each entity would have a complete record and access to every notice posted on the blockchain, everyone could have easy access to all of the posted information through a standard search engine. This would allow individuals to search a complete record of the notices by different tags such as type of notice, county, city, date, keywords, and more. This online database would be a dramatic improvement over the current print-publication method, where to read all public notices, one would have to purchase a separate copy of each newspaper across the state every week. With more than 50 newspapers across the state, each published in different locations and on different days of the week, collecting all of the notices would be no easy task.
Further, with storage and widespread access to all the public notices on the blockchain, there is a greater guarantee that this information could not be hacked or destroyed. Each public notice would be distributed and duplicated by multiple entities, ensuring that the failure of a single entity would not destroy the information. Often, public notices are kept in hard-copy format, easily lost to the ravages of time, be it an act of God or a newspaper bankruptcy. Those newspapers that do opt to post notices electronically are susceptible to the same fate, a data center holding the information is no more permanent.
Moreover, with some public notices, third-party proof-of-notice is required in court proceedings. Currently, each newspaper provides such a proof-of-notice when the notice is submitted for publication. Posting onto a blockchain would be an improvement over the current system, as every other entity on the network would timestamp the copy, verifying its content and when it was posted. This would ensure that a multitude of individuals provide this proof-of-notice for each posting.
Finally, establishing a blockchain network for electronic public notices would help ensure greater public accountability. Information that government agencies are not required to post right now, such as meeting minutes, public meeting dates, or state budget information, could all easily be added to a given blockchain network. Thus, individuals would have ready access to information that is currently stored in disparate places or not stored electronically at all.
A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that less than one in 10 Americans now regularly receive print newspapers. Readership has steadily dwindled over the past few decades, while the number of individuals online has climbed. Blockchain technology allows Idahoans an opportunity to increase government accountability, by shifting to the electronic publication of legal notices, while saving taxpayers millions of dollars each year.