Maybe you have heard about blockchain. You definitely have heard about bitcoin, which is a specific application of blockchain technologies. But the attention given to cryptocoins overshadows the real disruptor that is the technology behind them. Blockchain is about trust, online trust. And it might soon shatter the very foundations of how things are done on the internet. Maybe because it is so game-changing, it has been mostly ignored by many, and misunderstood by others. But I believe that if you are in the field of online social justice and rights, you have to start thinking about how to use this technology and its potential applications.
Blockchain is defined as a distributed, open, digitally signed ledger. The way it works, and the way it can be adapted to many uses, is not really easy to understand. But basically, it provides a way for anyone to store information about a transaction (it can be a sale, an exchange, a contract, etc.) and also to prove ownership (i.e. intellectual property, an ID document, a picture). But because of how cryptography works, it is not necessary to put on the ledger, for example, the contents of a whole book or a contract, but just a mathematical calculation done on the file, called hash. This can be enough to prove the existence of a certain document by a certain date, and its non-alteration. Also, because blockchain is based on strong cryptography using private and public keys, transactions on it can be anonymous.
This ledger is then distributed in the blockchain peer-to-peer network, where copies of the record are “chained” (cryptographically related to one another) and shared worldwide. This decentralised network of trust is where the power of blockchain rests: anyone can hold a copy of the blockchain, and at the same time, modifying a record on this ledger is virtually impossible retroactively, as it would imply modifying all subsequent records that are already linked to other blocks and shared widely (there is a consensus-based system to agree on which blockchain is valid, and altering this is a massive task). It is the blockchain plus the rules around the ledger – like who can create new blocks, what they can contain, and how consensus is built – that define the creation of specific applications, like bitcoin.
Can you visualise the power of blockchain? You can openly register a transaction between two parties who remain anonymous, and this transaction is time stamped, accessible by anyone anytime, and stored in copies all over the world that are virtually impossible to alter.
Among it strengths, the distributed information network has no vulnerabilities, as it does not have a central point of failure. And because it uses public key/private key encryption, it ensures anonymity and protects data from modifications. So transactions can be simultaneously open and anonymous, accessible by everyone but alterable by no one, and shared among peers who do not know or trust each other.
At the same time, the contents of the transactions can be fully transparent (but remember, transactions do not have to have the full content of the exchange, just the hash). The date it took place can be certain. Several related transactions (for example, an object as it changes ownership) can be traced back in time. No permissions are needed to access the data, and everyone who wants could have a copy. Does it sound interesting?
But for me, the power it holds lies in the distributed trust it offers, and the intermediaries that will not be needed anymore. And because it is a fairly new technology that very few understand, there is still no legislation against it, and plenty of space to experiment with its uses. Even though the actual changes might take years to be become visible, blockchain technologies hold the power to disrupt social and economic systems. We have yet to see how this technology is actually used; there are just timid approximations to potential uses.
So, you might be asking, how will this be relevant to civil society?
Blockchain is a technology that provides the environment for numerous custom-made applications, like bitcoin or Ethereum, but it is a very versatile model that can be applied in many ways. Some potential uses could include:
Consensus-based governance: What if we use blockchain to work towards consensus on campaigns, internet governance activities, voting, submissions, coordinating activities?
Real time reporting: Activities could be recorded on a blockchain, becoming live reports on activities, outputs and even expenditures. Fully transparent and accessible information, in real time, for donors and other interested parties.
Smart contracts: These are essentially contracts converted to computer code based on blockchain and allow you to exchange money, property, shares or anything else of value in a transparent, conflict-free way while avoiding the services of an intermediary. Those signing the contract can be anonymous, but the contract can be open. And specific actions can be programmed into the code to happen automatically on a due date, or when some key event takes place.
It is interesting how Tapscott defined blockchains: “authenticated by mass collaboration powered by collective self-interests.” If you haven't started looking at blockchain, you should start soon. I hope I have been able to awaken your curiosity. I think that we have to act soon, while the technology is new, to start using its applications in really creative ways, for our advantage, and really start building on this distributed online trust.
Image by OuiShare used under Creative Commons licence.