WordProof founder Sebastiaan van der Lans. Photographer: Bob Bronshoff, Amsterdam 2020

DSA-member WordProof has gotten quite the media attention lately. Not only for the service they are providing and how fast their company is growing, but they have also received 1 million euros from the European Commission for being first place in the competition Blockchains for social good. With founder Sebastiaan van der Lans, we talked about trust in the internet, future partnerships, and COVID-19.

Update: As of August 31st, 2020, the founders of Yoast SEO acquired a stake in Wordproof. Congratulations on this funding!

Why is WordProof important?

29% of European citizens are suspicious of the content on the internet. 86% are aware they have been misled by disinformation on the web, so you can only imagine the percentage of the ones who have been misled, but are unaware of it. We believe that the internet needs a layer of trust, so the reader knows the information they read is factual and knows where it came from, and on the flipside, if you are a content creator, you can prove that the content you created is yours. We provide that layer of trust through WordProof. We provide a service, providing a blockchain timestamp of your content. The internet has been developed with the aim of making life easier by providing handy to use apps and platforms, but there also needs to be a sense of trust in what the internet provides. Trust can be broken down in two: transparency and accountability. Transparency relates to when the content was updated and what has changed since previous versions of the content. Accountability relates to where the information comes from; thus, answering the question of “Does this really come from that company, journalist, politician, my government?”. These two factors are important, as the information we receive influences our life from which politicians we vote for, to how the current COVID-19 crisis is developing.

Why did you start working on WordProof? 

WordProof started off with WordPress, but is not WordPress exclusive. I have been working with WordPress for 15 years now. 38% of the internet is based on WordPress. What makes WordPress so interesting, is that it is an open source software, meaning that everyone can access the software for free. 15 years ago, open source software was not a common service. In 2018, the GDPR legislation came about. It was clear that citizens couldn’t protect their own privacy, so the responsibility was put on companies. That intention of GDPR is great, but its execution wasn’t too beautiful. Companies had to invest a lot of money to comply with the GDPR legislation. At my agency Van Ons, we decided to build a free and open source GDPR plugin for WordPress. Within 2 weeks we had already reached 10.000 downloads. At this moment we are counting over 1.3 million downloads and over 100.000 active users, all from free software. It doesn’t generate any income right away, but it contributes to building a movement towards what we call The Trusted Web. By combining our knowledge with the successful GDPR plugin and blockchain technology, WordProof was born.

You’ve mentioned that you have a good relationship with WordPress. Are there any other other partnerships in the making?

Now that we are getting more attention and recognition, our credibility is also growing. Compliance to GDPR has become mandatory, so we expect that for organisations such as banks, news outlets, and government websites, using timestamps will become mandatory to ensure transparency. We would like to partner with these government institutions, but also with search engines, web hosting parties and social media giants. In this way, how a piece of information changed over time isn’t transparent or if you can’t track back by whom and when it was written, it would get ranked lower in search results and social media, and in turn prevents the spread of disinformation.

Disinformation consists on one hand of trolling, and on the other hand opinions of real people. The danger of fake news is that ‘just an opinion’ can go viral. You can still post content online anonymously, but it should not be able to go viral if we want to combat disinformation.

“Many accept fraud or disinformation as parts of the internet. But with an added layer of trust through transparency and accountability, we can make a shift to a version of the internet where you can trust everything you read” – Sebastiaan van der Lans

Recently WordProof won first place in the competition ‘Blockchains for social good’, where the European Commission awarded you with 1 million euros. What are you planning to do with the money?

We established our presence through WordPress, but we are planning to use the money to develop on other platforms as well. Another big investment we are going to make is education. We aim to educate people on the harm of disinformation on the internet and how timestamping helps in our WordProof Academy. Right now, we notice that a lot of the issues on the internet are being taken for granted. Many accept fraud or disinformation as parts of the internet, “that’s just how things are”. This should not be the case. We aim to educate citizens, governments and search engines that there are possibilities to combat these issues and create a layer of trust. We want to start that movement through free education, awareness and establishing our presence on the big platforms. WordProof is a platform that provides a solution to some of these problems, but primarily we want to start the movement of regaining trust in the internet. We don’t see this money as an award for “just a startup in Amsterdam”, but as a recognition of the movement.

WordProof has been gaining a lot of recognition, despite there still being a pandemic present, which is affecting many startups. Has COVID-19 affected WordProof in any way?

When we entered the ‘Blockchains for social good’ competition, WordProof had been existing for three months, so we don’t have a lot of pre-COVID experience. I worked from home a lot even before lockdown, so that was nothing new for me. However, COVID-19 did bring us some opportunities. The people who we needed to connect and talk to were thought leaders on a global level, and since a lot of conferences had been cancelled due to lockdown, we were able to get a hold of them. So in our experience, the past few months have mostly brought opportunities. Furthermore, before COVID-19 we had to often explain that disinformation can cost lives, now everyone is aware of that due to the vast amount of information out there around COVID-19.

About Sebastiaan:
Sebastiaan van der Lans has a big heart for open source. In 2006 he co-founded Amsterdam’s first WordPress agency ‘Van Ons’, which is a leading digital agency now, serving over 100M page views a year. In 2019, Sebastiaan founded WordProof, the winner of Europe’s ‘Blockchains for Social Good’ contest in 2020. Sebastiaan has a strong passion for improving the playing fields of publishing, SEO, and e-commerce. Solutions by his teams are actively being used by over 100.000 organizations.